If John McEnroe really wanted to make a feminist critique of Serena Williams, this is what he should have said

Nothing reeks of male privilege like a man making spurious statements with an air of certainty about women’s bodies, and what is a comment based on nothing but an age-old bias about female weakness if not plain old sexism? 

Kirsty Major@Kirsty_Maj0r
Tuesday 27 June 2017 13:03
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McEnroe has said Serena Williams would rank 700th in the world if she played in the men's tour
McEnroe has said Serena Williams would rank 700th in the world if she played in the men's tour

There are men in this world who labour under the illusion that saying the mystic words “I am a feminist” casts a magic force field around them through which no claims of sexism may pass.

This was the spell evoked by the former foul-mouthed bad boy of tennis John McEnroe when he showed his sensitive side two weeks ago by revealing that he is a “proud feminist” and criticising the gender pay gap in professional tennis.

Seemingly emboldened by the knowledge that no claim of prejudice against women could harm him, he then told NPR that Serena Williams, currently ranked fourth in the WTA rankings despite her absence since January, would rank 700th in the world if she played on the men’s tour. During the interview promoting his new memoir, But Seriously, he felt the need to qualify his statement that Williams is one of the “all-time greatest athletes, period”.

“Maybe at some point a women’s tennis player can be better than anybody. I just haven’t seen it in any other sport, and I haven’t seen it in tennis,” he added.

Serena Williams sings karaoke

It’s not the first time McEnroe, the former world number one, felt the need to insult Williams, apropos of nothing. Speaking to Jimmy Kimmel in 2015, he said that he believed that he would win if he took her on – despite the fact he apparently turned down Donald Trump’s offer to pay for such a match.

Why McEnroe felt the need to qualify his statement is beyond me – the sentiment reads: women can be exceptional, but in the grand scheme of things they will always come second – sorry, 700th – to men.

As Williams put it herself, “Please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.” She has never played any of the male players she is compared against by McEnroe and, as she’s said herself, clearly doesn’t have the time right now due to the fact she is about to have a baby – the same one she was carrying inside her body when she won the Australian Open, on the topic of female strength. There is absolutely no basis for his claim that she would rank 700th if she took part in a men’s competition, aside from his presumption that female tennis players cannot win against men because they’re women, with no evidence at all to the contrary.

McEnroe’s comments read to me like a man feeling the need to speak the truth because when you are a feminist man you can do that. You can drop truth bombs because, “Understand, women, I am only speaking in facts – there is no prejudice in my statements. I’m a feminist, after all.”

Nothing reeks of male privilege like a man making spurious statements with an air of certainty about women’s bodies, and what is a comment based on nothing but an age-old bias about female weakness if not plain old sexism?

If he were a real feminist man, McEnroe would celebrate Serena’s success without the need to qualify it against those of her male peers. Nobody sums up the excellence of Serena Williams better than Claudia Rankine: “Her excellence doesn’t mask the struggle it takes to achieve each win.” Serena has won accolades in the sport despite the prejudices faced by women and those especially faced by women of colour. They are the facts that John McEnroe can celebrate.

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