Tennis Opinions

Quiet please: McEnroe and Serena Subject Needs To Go

Okay, folks, it’s time to settle this. At least until it inevitably gets brought up again by another reporter looking for a cheap headline.

We are less than a week away from the most prestigious tournament in the tennis world and arguably one of the most hallowed sporting events period. But instead, we’re talking – yet again – about if Serena Williams could compete with male tennis players.

This particular debate is one of the most tiresome in the entire sporting world, not because it fringes on specific prominent social issues regarding gender relations and feminism, but because there is so little substance or purpose to it.

Ronaldo or Messi? Is LeBron as good as Jordan? Should Average Joe’s have been disqualified for not having enough players initially at the final of the ADAA Las Vegas International Dodgeball Open? All of those probably have more merit to be debated than what the tennis world has sadly been reduced to this week.

I hate having even to recap the ridiculousness. Still, in case you’ve been living under a rock, last weekend 7-time grand slam champion John McEnroe said in an NPR interview that Serena Williams’ ranking would “be like 700 in the world” if she played on the ATP tour rather than the WTA.

Of course, the interview in question also included McEnroe calling Serena “An incredible player.” But that’s not as grabby of a headline. Or perhaps “grabby” isn’t the right word. That’s not as exploitative of a headline.

The truth is that McEnroe was baited into that response. He expressed his honest opinion, and the reporter in question, Lulu Garcia-Navarro in case you didn’t know, was probably more than happy to latch on to the dynamite quote that he provided.

Serena Williams responded Monday with a mild-mannered rebuttal.

Serena Tweet 1

Serena Tweet 2

In an interview with Time on Tuesday, McEnroe declined to apologize for his remark but backed up his general tone of praise for Williams.

“I didn’t know it would create controversy,” McEnroe said. “She’s the greatest female player that ever lived.”

Well, Mr McEnroe, the second part is indeed correct. To the first, being that you are a man who was under the media spotlight as a player and now work in media, I have trouble believing that you were entirely that ignorant to the waves that the topic creates.

But beyond your own experience with the media, there’s another reason as to why I doubt it: because we’ve all heard it so many times. This is a topic that stretches back to Billie Jean King against Bobby Riggs, it was brought up many times as women began to earn equal prize money at major tournaments and it still endures today.

The truth is that those looking to push gender buttons and create pointless controversy have rarely had an outlet as easy as Serena Williams. It’s a testament to her greatness because analysts have reached the point at which she is so utterly dominant that there is no point in comparing her to her actual competition. The inevitable result is that people feel they must find something else to serve as a measuring stick, even if it makes no sense.

Women and men are different. Period. That’s the truth, that’s the bottom line, that’s it.

To compare women’s tennis to men’s is like comparing the taste of diet soda to regular. Chemically, organically, and realistically they are different. To measure one against the other is beyond unfair; it’s nonsensical.

And yet we continue to do so. Why? Garcia-Navarro knew and unfortunately, as a journalist, I know the answer as well. Attention. And what is one of the easiest ways to get attention for our interview? Piss people off. Even if McEnroe is telling the truth when he says he didn’t realize how his words would be taken, Garcia-Navarro knew, NPR knew, ESPN knew, almost everyone probably knew. The unfortunate genius of doing an extensive interview covering a wide range of topics and boiling it down to one particular quote about a played out, pointless, but the controversial subject is that there are inevitably going to be two sides. The only one will be pissed off at first. But that side being pissed off will quickly piss off the other.

The sensationalism of this entire situation – which barely even deserves to be referred to as a “situation” – continued with Williams’ rational response. ESPN’s headline said that Serena had “fired back” at McEnroe because saying “Serena issues respectful, reasonable response” just doesn’t cut it today.

That’s the era of social media now. If you asked me to guess what per cent of people commenting, arguing or fuming about the quote in question had read the full interview, I would probably be able to count on my hands. Maybe I could even stand to lose a finger or two and still be right – 10 per cent seems a bit generous.

The entire fiasco that we in the tennis world have been watching this week is one of the most fabricated, pathetic controversies I’ve ever seen. This is a pointless debate that only continues to be brought up on the merit of making people angry and generating artificial interest in otherwise mundane interviews.

Hopefully, things can finally start to subside now. We’re less than a week out from Andy Murray walking out on to Centre Court to open his title defence at the All-England Club. His opponent will likely be quite overmatched, but you can bet that neither Garcia-Navarro nor ESPN will pay that particular matchup much interest. After all, it’s not as fun or possible to exploit.

Folks, it’s long since time that we settle this debate by agreeing that it’s not worth having. But unfortunately, we won’t.

We haven’t heard the last of the women’s tennis versus men’s tennis debate, we haven’t heard the last from John “The Mouth” McEnroe (I’ve never heard anyone call him that but I think it’s very appropriate and even alliterates!), and also if she surprises everyone and does not return to tennis following her pregnancy, we haven’t heard the last of Serena Williams versus male players.

And it’s too bad that we haven’t because life is precious. It’s time that we stopped with all of this, but we won’t, not this time or the next. There will be plenty more times that this gets brought up. And it’s a damn shame, because in the end all that this exploitative manipulation does to everyone’s time, including my own, is waste it.

Geoff Bruce

Tennis fan and writer. I have written about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets.

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