Serena Williams has responded to the suggestion that she could not defeat the world’s top male tennis players by saying: “Respect me”.
The controversial remark was made by retired tennis player and commentator John McEnroe. McEnroe had said that Williams – who, let’s remind ourselves, is widely regarded as the greatest female tennis player in history – would be “like, 700 in the world” if she competed on the men’s tennis circuit.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t think Serena is an incredible player, and I suppose anything’s possible,” said McEnroe, 58, in an interview with NPR. “Maybe at some point a woman’s tennis player can be better than anybody.
“I just haven’t seen that in any other sport, and I haven’t seen it in tennis. If she had to just play the men’s circuit, it would be an entirely different story.”
Williams is currently the world no. 1 female singles tennis player, a title she has held no less than eight times since winning the Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2002. In January, she won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open – a feat it was later revealed she’d achieved while two months pregnant.
The 35-year-old, who is due to give birth to her first child with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in the autumn, addressed McEnroe’s comments in an open letter on Twitter.
“Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based,” wrote Williams.
“I’ve never played anyone ranked ‘there’ [on the men’s circuit] nor do I have time.
“Respect me and my privacy as I’m trying to have a baby. Good day sir.”
McEnroe had also said that he believed Williams might stand a chance of beating “some players… because she is so incredibly strong mentally”.
“She could overcome some situations where players would choke because she’s been in it so many times, so many situations at Wimbledon, the US Open, etc.,” he said.
The debate about whether top female athletes are ‘good enough’ to defeat their male counterparts has existed for at least as long as women have been able to play competitive sports professionally.
In 1973, retired American tennis player Bobby Riggs challenged 29-year-old female champion Billie Jean King to a televised match dubbed the ‘Battle of the Sexes’, after publicly opining that the women’s game was inferior. King won the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Upcoming film Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs, is based on the match.
However, Williams has previously said that she thinks comparing male and female tennis players’ ability is a waste of time. “For me, men’s tennis and womens’ tennis are completely, almost, two separate sports,” she told David Letterman in 2013.
“If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes,” she continued. “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.”
Maybe Williams could defeat Andy Murray. Maybe she could beat John McEnroe. Or perhaps she couldn’t defeat a single male tennis player in the top 700 rankings. Whatever the answer, these arbitrary comparisons seem like a petty way of undermining Williams’ phenomenal athletic achievements. Let’s focus on those, shall we?
Images: Rex Features