John, you can­not be se­ri­ous

Irish Examiner - Sport - - OPINION/TENNIS - Eimear Ryan

Iam mostly aware of John Mcen­roe as a meme. I don’t re­mem­ber watch­ing him play in his hey­day; by the time I was con­scious of Wim­ble­don it was Graf, Agassi, Sam­pras and Navratilova who ruled the courts. But like many Youtube view­ers, I know Mcen­roe as the ‘You can­not be se­ri­ous!’ guy. One of ten­nis’s all-time greats, Mcen­roe is nonethe­less most fa­mous for his con­duct at Wim­ble­don in 1981. En­raged at cer­tain de­ci­sions that didn’t go his way, he yelled ‘You can­not be se­ri­ous!’ re­peat­edly at the um­pires — who were pre­sum­ably too Bri­tish, po­lite and bewil­dered to re­spond in kind.

This is the kind of guy Mcen­roe is — stub­born, ar­ro­gant, con­tro­ver­sial. (Though in fair­ness, he has a bit of self­aware­ness and self-ef­fac­ing hu­mour about him. Not only did he call his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy You Can­not Be Se­ri­ous, he has gamely spouted his catch­phrase in ev­ery­thing from car ad­verts to the sit­com 30 Rock.)

This is a guy who says that male play­ers grunt­ing on the court are fine, but that women’s grunt­ing is “an­noy­ing” and should be banned.

So maybe I shouldn’t be sur­prised that he stirred up a mini-storm this week af­ter an NPR in­ter­view in which he de­cided to hold forth on the rel­a­tive achieve­ments of one Ser­ena Wil­liams. While ac­knowl­edg­ing that Ser­ena is the best fe­male player in the his­tory of ten­nis, in the next breath Mcen­roe dis­missed her stature in the sport as a whole: “If she played the men’s cir­cuit she’d be, like, 700 in the world ... If she had to just play the men’s cir­cuit, it would be an en­tirely dif­fer­ent story.”

Ser­ena’s re­sponse, a se­ries of ‘Dear John’ tweets that quickly went viral, was the per­fect bal­ance of class and sub­tle shade: “I adore and re­spect you but please please keep me out of your state­ments that are not fac­tu­ally based.”

Re­mind­ing him that as a preg­nant woman, she has more im­por­tant things to be wor­ry­ing about than his opin­ion of her, she wrote: “Re­spect me and my pri­vacy as I’m try­ing to have a baby. Good day sir.”

Since then, things have es­ca­lated a lit­tle.

Mcen­roe re­fused to apol­o­gise and even dou­bled down on his com­ments, sug­gest­ing on a morn­ing news show that the mat­ter could eas­ily be set­tled once and for all: “I’ve got a so­lu­tion. Solve the prob­lem, and I’m sure the men would be all for this — the men and women play to­gether. And then we don’t have to guess.”

I have to ad­mit that it’s an in­trigu­ing prospect. If Ser­ena were to play against some­one on the men’s cir­cuit — for ar­gu­ment’s sake, let’s say the guy ranked 700th — who knows what would hap­pen?

Per­haps it would be very pre­dictable, and the guy would blast Ser­ena into obliv­ion with power serve af­ter power serve. Men and women have dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal­i­ties, af­ter all; for all Ser­ena’s gifts, she can’t match a man for testos­terone lev­els.

But maybe, just maybe, it would go down a lit­tle dif­fer­ently. Per­haps it would be like the fa­mous Bat­tle of the Sexes in 1973, when Bil­lie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets. With Ser­ena’s ex­em­plary strength, skill, athleticism, and com­pet­i­tive edge, she could dis­patch num­ber 700 as ruth­lessly and ef­fi­ciently as she has her fe­male op­po­nents through- out her ca­reer. Af­ter all, you don’t ac­cu­mu­late 23 grand slams with­out learn­ing all there is to know about the will to win.

But even Wil­liams her­self might ad­just her ex­pec­ta­tions in this hy­po­thet­i­cal match. Ap­pear­ing on David Let­ter­man’s talk show in 2013, she read­ily ad­mit­ted that she, the Wim­ble­don cham­pion at the time, wouldn’t stand a chance against her male coun­ter­part.

“If I were to play Andy Mur­ray, I would lose, 6-0, 6-0, in five to six min­utes, maybe ten min­utes,” she said. “The men are a lot faster, they serve harder, they hit harder… It’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent game.”

Mcen­roe’s com­ments are ill-con­ceived not be­cause they’re in­cor­rect, but be­cause they’re so tired, mean­spir­ited, pre­dictable, and be­side the point. Why are we even dis­cussing Ser­ena in terms of men she’s never com­peted against? Why be­lit­tle what is, by any stan­dard, an ex­tra­or­di­nary record of sport­ing suc­cess? Why un­der­mine an ath­lete who has en­ter­tained mil­lions and in­spired count­less young women to pur­sue sport? And for what? Just to re­mind us all of the phys­i­cal dom­i­nance of men? We get it, John. We live in the world. Let us have our hero­ines.

The con­tro­versy has il­lu­mi­nated an in­ter­est­ing wider ques­tion: How do we quan­tify great­ness in sport, any­way? It doesn’t come down to sheer athleticism and abil­ity. There are mul­ti­ple fac­tors to take into ac­count: Longevity, strat­egy, tem­per­a­ment, men­tal strength, en­ter­tain­ment value, and the will to win.

Ser­ena won this year’s Aus­tralian Open while eight weeks preg­nant. That’s a chal­lenge no male player will ever have to face.

Any ath­lete can only be judged against those they com­pete against. This is ob­vi­ous any time we try to come up with all-time great­est player lists. These rank­ings are fun but ul­ti­mately faulty con­structs: How can we re­al­is­ti­cally com­pare Christy Ring to Joe Can­ning or Maradona to Messi? They ex­ist in com­pletely dif­fer­ent con­texts and, to a cer­tain ex­tent, dif­fer­ent sports.

Not that any of these nu­ances ever stopped Mcen­roe from mak­ing sweep­ing state­ments be­fore. When Ser­ena won the US Open in 2012, he gushed: “You’re watch­ing, to me, the great­est player to ever play the game.”

And af­ter Ser­ena’s Wim­ble­don vic­tory in 2015, he de­clared that she was “ar­guably the great­est ath­lete in the last 100 years”. No gen­der-based qual­i­fi­ca­tions there. So what’s changed in the last few years? A clue might be found in why he was be­ing in­ter­viewed by NPR in the first place: He was pro­mot­ing his lat­est mem­oir, But Se­ri­ously. Is it pos­si­ble he’s de­lib­er­ately stok­ing con­tro­versy to flog a few more books? Oh, John.

You can­not be se­ri­ous.

Pic­ture: Scott Bar­bour

CRASS COM­MENTS: John Mcen­roe watches the Aus­tralian Open women’s sin­gles fi­nal be­tween Venus Wil­liams and her sis­ter Ser­ena Wil­liams in Mel­bourne last January. Mcen­roe’s com­ment that Ser­ena Wil­liams would not have a chance against any of the top 700...

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