“If [Serena] played the men’s circuit, she’d be, like, 700 in the world.” —John McEnroe
“If I were a man, then it wouldn’t be any sort of question.” —Serena Williams
John McEnroe cannot be serious.
He couldn’t seriously think that he could question or attempt to qualify the greatness of the goddess known as Serena Williams—patron saint of tennis and all things badass and Amazonian (seriously, she’s our real-life Wonder Woman)—and not also anticipate that we, the people, would collectively side-eye him and his cheap attempt to promote his new(er) memoir, But Seriously. (His first was appropriately titled You Cannot Be Serious.)
Frankly, considering that his career and legacy are so legendary that they required two memoirs, why was any commentary on Williams necessary? He concedes that she is the greatest female tennis player of all time; seems like that’s her story, not his. Nevertheless, he persisted.
Is it because her 23 grand-slam singles titles make her the most consistent winner in the sport? She more than triples McEnroe’s seven (not to mention her four Olympic gold medals, to his zero); Roger Federer has 18.
I won’t be reading McEnroe’s book to find out, but I would hate to think he was that petty or ill-mannered. That said, it would be far from the first time.
And while I personally think that asking him to qualify “female” was both a ridiculous question and a bit of a setup by NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro, he stupidly took the bait. Or, rather, he stepped in it, when he not only decided to compare Williams with a man (how original), but also claimed that she would rank 700th if she were one.
Why? Why was that comparison even necessary, let alone his assessment of her talent and worth?
He has since doubled down on his obnoxious assertion, not only refusing to apologize, but attempting to justify his idiocy by suggesting that we do away with gender-segregated competition altogether, and let co-ed competition determine rank. While there is a gimmicky precedent—see the “Battle of the Sexes”—all that ’70s stunt proved is that retired male tennis players who talk shit generally get their asses handed to them. (Fun fact: Although McEnroe and Williams have approximately the same age difference as Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King’s during their legendary face-off, McEnroe readily admits that he wouldn’t be up to the task of sparring with Williams, even once declining a million-dollar wager from Donald Trump to do so—though he jokes that he might have better odds, now that Williams is well into her pregnancy. Classy.)
I am not debating whether Serena Williams is as good as the men in her sport; it’s an irrelevant and insulting comparison. This is about a white man glibly perpetuating a culture that persistently qualifies and diminishes black and female contributions and excellence. Williams firmly sits in the center of that intersection, if not atop.
McEnroe is likely too arrogant and oblivious to consider how his stance upholds a long tradition of white, male-centric supremacy. In fact, he claims to be called a “feminist” by his daughter and continues to rightly insist that Williams is the best woman ever to play the sport. (Thanks, Captain Obvious.) But he isn’t blind to the nuances of how race and gender affect perception, even acknowledging inequities in the criticism of Williams’ sportsmanship versus his own in a 2013 interview with CNN:
Serena’s way better than I am (in terms of keeping her temper). There’s no comparison. I think she’s held herself and she’s needed to—obviously being a woman and, second, being looked at closer because she’s black; so I think she’s got a couple strikes against her before she even starts.
Writer Ian Crouch maintained this, too, not only declaring Williams “America’s Greatest Athlete” in a 2014 article for the New Yorker, but also pointing out the resistance to crowning her one of America’s sweethearts or “the game’s untouchable queen”:
[I]t’s not enough to say that Williams would be more uniformly adored if she were a white woman, or a man. Instead, the failure to fully appreciate her importance is perhaps evidence of our inability to appreciate the stubbornly unfamiliar narrative arc of her career. Williams is underloved because, at times, she has been unlovable and, in the end, mostly unrepentant about it—something that might be admired as iconoclastic in a male athlete, but rarely endears women to a wide audience. […] Williams is indeed singular: she is likely the only person ever to utter on a professional tennis court, “I swear to God, I’m fucking going to take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat, you hear that? I swear to God.” (Of course, John McEnroe said things that weren’t so different, and he is beloved for it.)
But if Williams’ feistiness on the court is most evocative of the tennis world’s most renowned tantrum thrower, that’s where the comparison ends. In fact, her attitude about her already legendary career more closely echoes that of Muhammad Ali, the self-declared “Greatest of All Time.” In her own words:
I don’t need to do anything at all. Everything I do from this day forward is a bonus. Actually, from yesterday. It doesn’t matter. Everything for me is just extra.
So perhaps what McEnroe is criticizing is not her athleticism but her audacity.
Because no, she doesn’t need to do another damn thing to qualify her greatness. But for the cheap seats—or the announcer’s booth, where McEnroe now sits—let’s be abundantly clear: Serena Williams is not great for a female athlete (read: “for a girl”), or merely in comparison with other female athletes. She is the greatest. Period.
Her greatness is not due to her gender. Her greatness lies in her athleticism, her consistency, her tenacity and her longevity as an unparalleled champion.
No woman should have to compete with or be contrasted with a man to receive the credit she deserves for being the best in her field, especially when she has competed doing something a man has never done. You know, like winning her 23rd grand-slam title while pregnant with her first child.
Speaking of which, why is her decision to pose nude and pregnant on the July cover of Vanity Fair a renewed opportunity to police her body? Notably, she is one of a few black celebs to do so, particularly in a nonblack publication. But she is far from the first celebrity to do this. The trend actually began with Demi Moore, whose 1991 Vanity Fair cover—also photographed by Annie Leibovitz—was most likely the inspiration.
But along with praise for the beauty of the image, there is a steady stream of discomfort—from black and nonblack critics alike—and an expressed desire to erase (or, at least, cover up) her unapologetic celebration of motherhood and metamorphosis. As if Williams’ black body, now softened in its much-scrutinized musculature by pregnancy, is not worthy of the same glorification and platform as the bodies of her numerous nonblack celebrity predecessors.
As an acquaintance on one social media thread remarked, Williams’ very presence there reminds us: “Black skin matters. Black babies matter. Black mothers matter.”
Yes, it is the audacity that makes them uncomfortable.