John McEnroe vs. Serena Williams: When Did The “Battle of the Sexes” Become So Humourless?


The po-faced commentariat have got their knickers in a twist over remarks John McEnroe made about his fellow tennis pro Serena Williams last week.

In an NPR interview, John McEnroe was quoted as saying that if Williams was to compete on the men’s circuit she would be ranked at 700 in the world, a steep drop from her current number one position in women’s tennis.

Immediately, McEnroe was accused of sexism and was absurdly asked on an NBC chat show to apologise for his comments.

I have absolutely no idea if what he said is true or not. That ranking does sound like a bit of wild guess and there is no way to disprove it unless Serena Williams did start playing against ranked men.

What bothers me more is the reaction to his opinion, which was the usual miserable brew of outrage, condescension and finger wagging. McEnroe should be able to speak his mind freely without being browbeaten into silence or forced to apologise by people too uptight and intolerant to handle a perspective different from their own.

The usual miserable brew of outrage, condescension and finger wagging.

What could have been a lively debate about men vs. women in professional sports has been turned instead into an unpleasant political witch-hunt in which anyone who dares offer a dissenting view is accused of bigotry.

It doesn’t have to be like that. In 1973, retired tennis pro Bobby Riggs challenged champion Billie-Jean King to a televised contest humorously dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes”.

Prior to the match, Riggs had boasted that even in retirement he could beat a professionally ranked female player.

King, who was a well-known advocate for equal prize money in men and women’s tennis, accepted the challenge and won, beating Riggs in three straight sets.

Afterwards, the two combatants shook hands, hugged and were friends for long after that. Even though King made a serious point with her victory and changed people’s minds, she didn’t make a point of chastising or humiliating Riggs. Rather than polarising men and women the whole match was undertaken in a spirit of fun and good-natured contest. A far cry from today’s gloomy ideological battles.