John McEnroe did not take back anything he said about Serena Williams in a recent interview with NPR, but he admitted on a call with reporters on Wednesday that perhaps he should have had less to say in the first place.
“Maybe it’s better if it hadn’t been said,” he said during a conference call to promote ESPN’s coverage of Wimbledon, which begins Monday.
The controversy started when McEnroe called Williams the “best female player ever — no question,” and interviewer Lulu Garcia-Navarro wondered why McEnroe qualified his remark by limiting his point to females.
McEnroe responded, “If she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world.” He added she could beat some men, but “if she had to just play the circuit — the men’s circuit — that would be an entirely different story.”
Those observations by themselves were not particularly outrageous, as Williams herself has said it would not be possible for her to compete against elite men’s players.
But Williams, who is on a pregnancy break from competing, took issue with McEnroe in a pair of tweets that furthered the story.
She wrote, “Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based,” and, “I’ve never played anyone ranked ‘there’ nor do I have time. Respect me and my privacy as I’m trying to have a baby. Good day sir.”
McEnroe declined to apologize during an interview on CBS Tuesday.
On Wednesday, he said, “This is not something that’s been earth-shattering that I feel there’s a difference in the level of the men and the women, even though I was trying to say how great I thought Serena was and how good she’s been for American tennis.”
Asked by a reporter whether the discussion is even relevant, he said, “I don’t think it’s relevant. That’s part of the frustration that I’m having that people keep talking about it, because it doesn’t seem like we hear about it in other sports. I mean, I know Bobby Riggs played Billie Jean [King] 40 years ago or 45 years ago, but I continue to sort of not understand why this is a topic of conversation.
“If people are so [interested], have the men and women play together. If the women want to do that and if that would be good for tennis I’m all for trying things that would be good for tennis. I don’t understand that tennis seems to be the only sport that this is talked about.”
Asked whether he should have merely noted Williams’ greatness and left it at that, he said, “I suppose that would have been an avenue. When I was asked a question I was just talking about Serena and I said, ‘Look, obviously if it wasn’t for Serena, then American tennis would even be in a lot deeper trouble, and she in my opinion is the greatest female player ever.’
“And then the lady said, ‘Well, why don’t you just say the greatest player ever?’ So it sort of took me aback because I wasn’t quite sure what she was saying. But I’m sure that perhaps it would have been easier just to leave it at, ‘Look, she’s a great player and it’s apples and oranges.’
“We’ve had these conversations fairly often. Occasionally these things come up and a lot of people weigh in with their feelings. People don’t have to agree with my opinion, and maybe it was wrong and it would have been better not to have said it. I didn’t realize it would create something like this.
“Maybe it’s better if it hadn’t been said, because I have a lot of respect for Serena and she’s been great for the game. I think people that know me know that. I think that’s really what it boils down to. But that was just an opinion. That’s just my opinion.”
Pam Shriver, McEnroe’s ESPN colleague, said, “I think it’s a conversation that we all revisit and have every so often and I think it’s fine to have it. I think it’s two different divisions. It’s the women’s, it’s the men’s. It’s like singles and doubles. You don’t mix up the divisions.
“Great tennis matches are great tennis matches regardless of which division you’re talking about. Women will always play women at the majors. There might be some exhibitions that are kind of fun that brew up. I can remember playing doubles with Martina [Navratilova] against Bobby [Riggs] and Vitas Gerulaitis back in the mid-’80s when we had our win streak going.
“It’s good for our sport that it’s still a part of the conversation, but it’s really not relevant where Serena would be ranked in the men’s game. It’s just not relevant.”