It doesn't matter if John McEnroe or any man could beat Serena Williams. Here's why.

John McEnroe’s decree that Serena Williams would “be like 700 in the world,” on the men’s tennis circuit predictably set the internet on fire.

The former seven-time Grand Slam champion told NPR in a June 25 interview that while he thinks Williams is an incredible player, it would be “an entirely different story,” if she had to compete against men.

Photo by Greg Wood/Getty Images.

Whether McEnroe is right or wrong, many saw the comment from the famously loose cannon as unfairly dismissive of one of the most dominant athletes of her generation.

We’re all human; we all say misguided things from time to time. Growing and learning and owning up to mistakes are all a part of running on this crazy hamster wheel we call life and so on and so forth.

Unfortunately, last night, when Stephen Colbert tried to give McEnroe an out, he … didn’t exactly take it.

When pressed by “The Late Show” host, the former world #1 doubled down on his assertion that Williams would have a hard time beating most men.

McEnroe unequivocally credited Williams for being the “best thing that’s happened to American tennis in the last 15 years” and praised her as “one of the greatest athletes of the last 100 years.”

Unfortunately, he also said some other things:

“Do they say that about girl basketball players? That they’re as good as Michael Jordan?”

“My girls don’t think I could beat her now. I thought I could beat her. She’s pregnant, so maybe I should play her now.”

If you’ve ever wondered what getting about 80% of the way to an apology before spinning around and slamming a deep corner shot to that apology’s backhand looks like, now you know.

Athletes are competitive, and no one wants to willingly relinquish the title of “greatest,” especially not a notoriously prideful player like McEnroe.

Photo by Rob Taggart/Getty Images.

As an all-time great tennis player, McEnroe has certainly earned the right to consider himself a member of the sport’s elite. And his comments likely resonate, in part, because people actually want to know what would happen if Williams went head-to-head with the top men of her era.

I’m curious. You’re probably curious. No doubt McEnroe himself is curious.

But to dismiss William’s claim to greatest-of-all-time status on the basis of her gender is particularly gross.

Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.

It’s true that women are, on average, smaller than men. But sports — particularly individual sports like tennis — have always categorized players by physical stature.

Take boxing. Floyd Mayweather and Evander Holyfield are both among the greatest fighters of all time. Mayweather presently competes as a welterweight. Holyfield, however, is a former heavyweight champion. If they fought each other in their primes, Mayweather would probably dance around Holyfield for about 30 seconds, at which point Holyfield would punch Mayweather full on in in the face and Mayweather would die.

It is self-evident that Mayweather would get creamed (though I’m sure Mayweather would insist otherwise). That’s why boxing has weight classes in the first place.

And yet, there’s little public debate about that scenario, likely because they’re both men who dominate in their respective rings. It’s simply accepted that their innate physical differences prevent them from engaging in a fair fight.

Meanwhile, former male tennis greats and fans can’t stop asserting Williams’ inferiority.

Williams is by far the most dominant player of her era — perhaps any era.

She has exceeded her opponents in wins, points, championships, you name it. That’s where her greatness lies. Beating or losing to a bunch of men wouldn’t change that.

Would Serena Williams succeed on the men’s circuit? It’s possible she wouldn’t. But McEnroe truly has no idea. Like everyone else, he’s speculating.

McEnroe on the court in 1982. Photo via Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Such speculation from a figurehead of the sport sends a poor message to young girls and women involved in tennis.

It’s the message that tells aspiring female players that “you can be good, but all the biggest trophies are reserved for boys.” A message that suggests their abilities and strengths as a tennis player are somehow considered less than because of their gender.

McEnroe is entitled to his opinion, but Williams’ accomplishments speak for themselves.

Grand Slam singles titles: 23.

Doubles titles: 14.

Four Olympic gold medals.

Over $80 million in prize money.

Any athlete, male or female, would envy a G.O.A.T.-worthy stat line like that, as they should also envy Williams’ record of leadership on and off the court.

Such towering achievement might, understandably, make a woman uninterested in dwelling on hypotheticals.

How would Williams fare against the top men in tennis today? We’ll probably never know.

And that’s a good thing.





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