McEnroe: No, I'm not going to apologize to Serena Williams

Give John McEnroe credit for unintentional grandmaster trolling this week — and for sticking to his guns, advisedly or not. The former number-one men’s tennis player bluntly responded “no” when the CBS This Morning panel asked him if he wanted to apologize to Serena Williams for remarks he made during an NPR interview, in which he speculated that the current top female player would rank “around 700” on the men’s circuit. On tour to promote a new book, McEnroe pointed out that his autobiography never brings up the topic, and that he was only guilty of an honest response to an off-topic question:

The hosts seemed aghast at McEnroe’s lack of remorse, although he did say that the exchange was “not necessary,” and that he’d rather talk about the book. (Even so, the panel kept at this topic for half of the segment.) A look at the NPR transcript shows that McEnroe has a point, and that Lulu Garcia-Navarro went out of her way to make a mountain out of a mundane observation:

Garcia-Navarro: We’re talking about male players but there is of course wonderful female players. Let’s talk about Serena Williams. You say she is the best female player in the world in the book.

McEnroe: Best female player ever — no question.

Garcia-Navarro: Some wouldn’t qualify it, some would say she’s the best player in the world. Why qualify it?

McEnroe: Oh! Uh, she’s not, you mean, the best player in the world, period?

Garcia-Navarro: Yeah, the best tennis player in the world. You know, why say female player?

McEnroe: Well because if she was in, if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world.

Garcia-Navarro: You think so?

McEnroe: Yeah. That doesn’t mean I don’t think Serena is an incredible player. I do, but the reality of what would happen would be I think something that perhaps it’d be a little higher, perhaps it’d be a little lower. And on a given day, Serena could beat some players. I believe because she’s so incredibly strong mentally that she could overcome some situations where players would choke ’cause she’s been in it so many times, so many situations at Wimbledon, The U.S. Open, etc. But if she had to just play the circuit — the men’s circuit — that would be an entirely different story.

The reason McEnroe included the gender qualifier in his statement is so absurdly obvious that it beggars belief that Garcia-Navarro questioned it at all. It’s because professional tennis (and amateur tennis for that matter) separates itself into gender categories for competition. The tennis players themselves separate on gender, which makes comparisons across categories nonsensical — even if one didn’t know that men have to play more sets, for instance, which requires more endurance. McEnroe might have done better to avoid speculating on where Williams would rank on the men’s circuit — hence Williams’ complaint about his use of non-factual argument — but he’s entirely correct on the use of the qualifier.

This point didn’t have much impact on the CBS panel, however. Charlie Rose asks, “Have you never heard of Bobby Riggs?”, a reference to the Battle of the Sexes event in 1973 with Billie Jean King, but that misses the point — in two ways. First, most people forget that the 55-year-old Riggs had just beaten then-#1 women’s player Margaret Court (age 30) in straight sets four months earlier, which set the stage for the Riggs-King match. Riggs’ last professional Grand Slam win took place twenty-four years earlier, at the 1949 US Open against Don Budge. The critical quality in the match with King was age, not gender, as King shrewdly forced Riggs to wear himself out by playing a baseline game — a strategy she adopted after his win over Court.

Furthermore, the 58-year-old McEnroe never suggested that he could beat Williams — but that she would not be able to beat top-ranked current players on the men’s circuit. There’s one sure way to settle the issue that Garcia-Navarro raised, McEnroe said:

The former tennis bad boy said there may only be one solution to settle the debate.

“Why don’t you combine, just solve the problem — I’m sure the men would be all for this — the men and women play together and then we don’t have to guess,” he said.

Don’t expect the women on the pro tour to take up this offer. For those who are offended at gender categories and qualifiers, though, the issue should be taken up with the players and the tours — not with those who use their own categories for analysis.