For Pete's Sake

John McEnroe’s comment on Serena Williams ignites gender debate about defining greatness

Serena Williams.
Serena Williams. The Associated Press

Retired tennis star John McEnroe was on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” on Sunday, and he was asked about Serena Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam titles.

NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro noted that in his book, McEnroe had called Williams the best women’s player in the world and suggested that perhaps she was the best player in the world, regardless of gender.

“You know, why say female player?” Garcia-Navarro said.

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

He added: “That doesn’t mean I don’t think Serena is like an incredible player. I do, but the reality of what would happen on a given day, Serena could beat some players, I believe, because she’s so incredibly strong mentally. But if she had to just play the men’s circuit, that would be an entirely different story.”

The Washington Post recalled that Williams, who is now pregnant, was asked by David Letterman in 2013 about playing men’s star Andy Murray.

“If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes,” Williams said at the time. No, it’s true. It’s a completely different sport. The men are a lot faster and they serve harder, they hit harder, it’s just a different game. I love to play women’s tennis. I only want to play girls, because I don’t want to be embarrassed. I would not do the tour, I would not do Billie Jean (King) any disservice.”

Garcia-Navarro wondered if there was more to determining the greatest player than who would win head-to-head.

“Is being the best athlete in the world about pitting men against women?” Garcia-Navarro wrote on Twitter. “By that metric women can never be best. Shouldn’t you look at exceptional performance and wins? It’s not a battle of the sexes.”

Here is a sample of what people were saying:

Pete Grathoff: 816-234-4330, @pgrathoff