Hoffman's Houston
Game, Set, Match

Seriously: McEnroe doesn't know when to shut up about Serena

Seriously: McEnroe doesn't know when to shut up about Serena

Houston, Ken Hoffman, Serena Williams, July 2017
Does anybody think, all things being equal, Serena Williams, playing her absolute best (pre-pregnancy), could beat Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic?
Serena Williams/Facebook

Aside from everything else, the question was beyond ridiculous. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, a reporter for National Public Radio, was interviewing John McEnroe about his new book, But Seriously, when Garcia-Navarro asked Johnny Mac what he thought about Serena Williams.

McEnroe praised Serena to the moon, called her the greatest female player ever. McEnroe, whom the British press once called “McBrat” and “McNasty,” was playing nice. And accurate. Serena is the GOAT – the greatest of all-time.

This seemed to set Garcia-Navarro off. "Some wouldn't qualify it, some would say she's the best player in the world," she said. “Why qualify it?”

That would have been a decent question if she meant to plug McEnroe’s book: But Seriously. And then changed the topic.

McEnroe took the bait. “You mean the best player in the world, period?”

Garcia-Navarro held her ground. “Yeah, the best tennis player in the world. You know, why say female player?"

Here’s where McEnroe should have resurrected his famous line, “You cannot be serious!” Instead, he explained, calmly, that if Serena Williams played the men’s ATP circuit, she’d be ranked about 700th.

I’d like to know who Garcia-Navarro is talking about … “Some wouldn’t qualify it, some would say she’s the best player in the world.”

While that’s a crazy statement, I do agree with her about one thing. Serena Williams wouldn’t be ranked 700th in the world if she played against men.

I can’t come up with a number, but I’m hearing the Price is Right audience yelling, “Higher, higher!”

It’s tennis, played on the same sized court, but men and women don’t play the same game. They play with the same rackets, but with different balls. Please, no snickering. Men use balls that slow their game down, so it’s more entertaining for fans. Women use balls that speed up their game.

You’ll give me that men hit the ball harder than women, right? Serena is used to returning women’s serves that, in most cases, hover around 100 mph. Good luck with John Isner’s 145-mph cannon blasts.

Last April, I was in a room with a few tennis pros, men and women, and I raised this question: What if John Isner, who has a thunderous, booming serve but a below-average ground game, played Caroline Wozniacki, who has an average women’s serve, but is a fantastic, speedy groundstroker and retriever?

The stipulation: Isner has to serve underhand, removing his primary (to borrow from Garcia-Navarro, some might say only) weapon.

Who’d win?

Every person in that room, except me, said Isner. He still hits his groundstrokes, errant as they may be, too hard for Wozniacki to handle. I still think Caro would beat Isner.

Williams is a powerful, intimidating legend on the women’s tour. I love watching her play. But on the men’s tour, she would be none of those things. Her fastest serves would barely be average against the men.

Outside of shooting, I can’t find one sport where times and measurements are kept — like swimming, running, weightlifting, jumping, etc. — where a woman holds the all-time mark. In fact, a study shows that, on average, the women’s record is about 10 percent lower than the men’s standard. 

Is there a woman in the world who can run faster than Usain Bolt? Swim faster than Michael Phelps? Shoot a hockey puck faster than Shea Weber of the Montreal Canadians? Ski faster than Ivan Origone of Italy? (Okay, I had to look those last two up.)

There are sports where women compete head-to-head against men and are successful, like sailing, horse racing, car racing, and archery. And mixed doubles is a popular part of recreational tennis.

But one-on-one tennis? On a professional level? No.

Sure, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973 in the Astrodome. You know what proved? Nothing. That wasn’t a tennis match, that was professional wrestling. King was 29 years old, near the top of her game. Riggs was 55, over the hill and possibly over his head in debt. King won in straight sets. Riggs looked like he was barely trying, which many suspect was the case.

Closer to actual tennis, Jimmy Connors played Martina Navratilova in a special handicap match in 1992 in Las Vegas. Connors was 40, but still competing at a high level. Navratilova was 35, still winning tournaments. It wasn’t played on even terms, however. Connors got only one serve instead of the traditional two, and Navratilova was allowed half of the doubles alleys. Connors won in straight sets. Later he admitted that, in addition to winning $1.2 million in prize money, he bet another $1 million on himself.

Retired French star Yannick Noah, 43, played Belgian great Justine Henin, 21, in a friendly match in 2003 in Brussels. Noah wore a dress and bra during much of the match. And still won. 

Does anybody think, all things being equal, Serena Williams, playing her absolute best (pre-pregnancy), could beat Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic?

Or Nerman Fatic from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the No. 700-ranked male tennis player?

So why does Lulu Garcia-Navarro (and her imaginary “some would say”) think that Serena Williams is the best tennis player in the world, period?

If she was just looking for an argument and publicity, then game, set, match, Garcia-Navarro.