Speaking to CBS in New York City on Tuesday, former tennis star John McEnroe refused to apologize for saying that Serena Williams would be ranked around 700th if she played on the male circuit.
Questioned by the CBS hosts, McEnroe was unrepentant. He had no intention of upsetting Serena Williams, he said, but nor did he regret his comments.
Still, what was more interesting in the interview was how the hosts embraced political correctness.
Under fire, McEnroe threw the contention back at Charlie Rose, asking him what rank he believed Serena would hold were she on the men's circuit. Rose is a tennis fan and knows the tour. But he couldn't bring himself to answer truthfully. Even when pushed, Rose stated, "She seemed pretty strong to me."
Next up, Gayle King challenged McEnroe. His comments, said Gayle, "belittle" female sporting accomplishments. Evidently angered by McEnroe's rebuttal, King asked McEnroe where he would rank on the men's tour. The 58-year-old responded, "about 1,200th in the world." It was a clever riposte. McEnroe suggested that Williams is a better player than him (she'd be 700th, he's 1,200th).
Regardless, the exchange was embarrassing. The CBS hosts clearly believed that they had a responsibility to slap down McEnroe's original comment. They were not there to question McEnroe, they were there to flay him. It didn't matter that McEnroe was right or wrong, but only that he be punished.
Of course, anyone who knows tennis knows that McEnroe is right. In the power of shots and endurance of the players, the male circuit is stronger than the women's. That's not a sexist comment. It's a fact of nature. As comparative serve speeds attest, facts are facts. It's as obvious as saying that a B-2 bomber carries more explosive power than a F-18 Super Hornet.
And it's not just the statistics of the court. Consider the relative daily attendance and TV viewing figures for major tennis tournaments. At Wimbledon, for example, figures for the gentlemen's semifinals or quarterfinals are greater than at the ladies' equivalent. The viewers know that the men's game is faster and stronger. And for that reason, many find it more compelling.
This doesn't take away from the accomplishment of the female players on the tour. From working at Wimbledon for seven years, I know firsthand the exceptional athleticism and skill that defines female tennis players. In the end, this is just a question of biology. And up against the male circuit, Serena Williams would not find the extraordinary success that she has attained. We should be able to admit that and be comfortable with it.
And we should be able to celebrate Serena Williams for being the best tennis player of her sex. She is a far better player on the women's tour than McEnroe ever was on the men's.