John McEnroe, Serena Williams and the Erasure of Black Female Excellence

By Maiysha Kai,

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

“If [Serena] played the men’s circuit, she’d be, like, 700 in the world.” —John McEnroe

“If I were a man, then it wouldn’t be any sort of question.” —Serena Williams

John McEnroe cannot be serious.

He couldn’t seriously think that he could question or attempt to qualify the greatness of the goddess known as Serena Williams—patron saint of tennis and all things badass and Amazonian (seriously, she’s our real-life Wonder Woman)—and not also anticipate that we, the people, would collectively side-eye him and his cheap attempt to promote his new(er) memoir, But Seriously. (His first was appropriately titled You Cannot Be Serious.)…

Is it because her 23 grand-slam singles titles make her the most consistent winner in the sport? She more than triples McEnroe’s seven (not to mention her four Olympic gold medals, to his zero); Roger Federer has 18….

And while I personally think that asking him to qualify “female” was both a ridiculous question and a bit of a setup by NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro, he stupidly took the bait. Or, rather, he stepped in it, when he not only decided to compare Williams with a man (how original), but also claimed that she would rank 700th if she were one….

(Photo: Getty)

McEnroe is likely too arrogant and oblivious to consider how his stance upholds a long tradition of white, male-centric supremacy. In fact, he claims to be called a “feminist” by his daughter and continues to rightly insist that Williams is the best woman ever to play the sport. (Thanks, Captain Obvious.) But he isn’t blind to the nuances of how race and gender affect perception, even acknowledging inequities in the criticism of Williams’ sportsmanship versus his own in a 2013 interview with CNN:

Serena’s way better than I am (in terms of keeping her temper). There’s no comparison. I think she’s held herself and she’s needed to—obviously being a woman and, second, being looked at closer because she’s black; so I think she’s got a couple strikes against her before she even starts….

As an acquaintance on one social media thread remarked, Williams’ very presence there reminds us: “Black skin matters. Black babies matter. Black mothers matter.”

Yes, it is the audacity that makes them uncomfortable.

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