‘Most men would thrash Serena’ says McEnroe

Serving up a storm: Between them, Serena Williams and John McEnroe have won 30 grand slams.

Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player ever. But ex-star John McEnroe thinks she would be out of her depth in men’s tennis. If this is true, does it devalue women’s sport?

John McEnroe has always been as famous for his outbursts as for his tennis, frequently launching volleys of abuse at umpires when he dominated men’s tennis in the 1980s.

And now he has turned his verbal guns on Serena Williams. Asked if he thought Serena Williams was the greatest female tennis player ever, he said “yes”, but added “if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world”.

Williams, now 35, had her own elegant response: “Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based. I’ve never played anyone ranked ‘there’ nor do I have time. Respect me and my privacy as I’m trying to have a baby. Good day sir.”

Even the world number 701 himself, Dimitri Tursunov, has weighed into the debate, saying “I would hope that I would win against Serena,” emphasising how tennis’s increasing physicality has widened the gap between the men’s and women’s game.

McEnroe’s comments were met with outrage, with Vox calling it a “flippant” way of diminishing Williams’s career. But he has since doubled down, even throwing out the idea of combining the men’s and women’s tours to prove who is really the best.

The row has echoes of tennis’s “Battle of the Sexes” when, in 1973, Bobby Riggs, a retired 55 year-old who was once considered the best in the world, challenged two of the top female tennis players to a match. He ended up losing to the great American Billie Jean King.

Men, on average, are faster and stronger than women. That is a biological fact, and it is why, in most sports, men and women are split up.

There are exceptions. This year Lizzie Kelly became the first female jockey to ride in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, men and women will compete in the same relay races in athletics and swimming.

But despite McEnroe’s comments, women’s tennis enjoys a status that is the envy of female footballers or cricketers. If the women’s game is of a lower standard, does that make it different — or simply worse?

Volley of words

“Different — and better,” say some. Women’s tennis is all about guile, agility and subtlety. Much better than the crash-bang-wallop force of the men’s game. Rallies are longer, serves are broken more often and it is generally less predictable (except Serena usually wins). Sport should be about elegance, not a rigid examination of quality.

Others believe that sport is not about playing pretty tennis, but winning ugly. When you see the best male tennis players you are witnessing the peaks of human physicality, involving both strength and stamina. There is a different, raw beauty to this kind of playing. Sport really is about being the best.

You Decide

  1. Which do you prefer: men’s tennis or women’s tennis?
  2. Should male tennis players be given more prize money than female players?

Activities

  1. Class debate: “This house would rather lose elegantly than win ugly.”
  2. Research and compare the difference between the men’s game and the women’s game in a sport of your choice, and give a five minute presentation about it to your class.

Some People Say...

“Sports are a microcosm of society.”

Billie Jean King

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That Serena Williams readily accepts that there is a difference in quality between men’s tennis and women’s tennis. In 1998 she and her sister Venus lost to the world number 203, Karsten Braasch. This difference applies to other sports, but to differing extents: in tennis, for example, it is much smaller than in football or rugby. We know that, in certain sports, some people are pushing for more mixed-sex events.
What do we not know?
Whether the difference is more down to innate physical characteristics of each sex, or whether women’s sport would be closer to men’s sport if given more funding, and if more girls were encouraged to take it up. And it is, of course, almost impossible to know exactly how well the best women would fare in men’s sport.

Word Watch

John McEnroe
Now a leading pundit on tennis, McEnroe is often considered among the greatest players in the history of the sport. He was known for his shot-making artistry and volleying skill and won seven grand slams in his career.
Volleys of abuse at umpires
At Wimbledon in 1981 McEnroe was fined $1,500 and came close to being thrown out after he called umpire Ted James “the pits of the world” and then swore at tournament referee Fred Hoyles. He also made famous the phrase “you cannot be serious”, which years later became the title of his autobiography.
Greatest female tennis player ever
Williams has won 23 grand slams, more than anyone else. She won the French Open this year while pregnant.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
The most prestigious jumps race in the British horse-racing calendar.
Female footballers
Wayne Rooney is paid 260 times more than the highest paid female footballer in England, Steph Houghton. (See the final article in Become An Expert.)