Wednesday 17 January 2018

Comment - If you don't believe truth of McEnroe's views on Serena Williams, look at what she said herself

Hold The Back Page

John McEnroe. Photo: Getty Images
John McEnroe. Photo: Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

While like all right-thinking people I naturally deplore John McEnroe's statement that Serena Williams would be ranked number 700 in men's tennis, I'd like to draw your attention to a statement even more atrociously sexist.

A leading tennis player has claimed that if Williams played Andy Murray she would "lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10. No, it's true. It's a completely different sport. The men are a lot faster and they serve harder, they hit harder. It's just a different game." They also said that she only wants to play against 'girls' to avoid being embarrassed.

The sexist monster who said these things? Serena Williams, in an interview with David Letterman four years ago. I think it's clear that Serena Williams owes Serena Williams an apology.

John McEnroe certainly doesn't, and the attempt to dragoon him into one is petty tawdry stuff. He didn't come up with his assessment of Williams for pure pig iron's sake, he said it in response to an interviewer who was wondering if Serena could beat the top men. In essence McEnroe was giving the same answer Williams gave on the Letterman show.

It's not the first time someone has gotten stick for giving an honest and correct answer when people would have preferred them to have given a dishonest one more in tune with current mores. And while people are getting all 'you go, girl' about Williams' response, which was to ask McEnroe to respect her privacy during her pregnancy, that doesn't make a lot of sense either. It's hardly impinging on Williams' privacy to answer a question about her.

There are probably two kinds of people who think Serena Williams would have had a shot at beating Andy Murray. Group A believe she would because they want it to be true. Group B believe she would because they know absolutely nothing about sport. But she wouldn't and it's hardly sexist to point that out.

It's also not particularly relevant to the question of Serena Williams' greatness. She is one of the world's finest sporting performers and the fact that she would be beaten by a lot of journeymen pros no-one has heard of doesn't change that.

I mean that. My own choice as the outstanding performer in Irish sporting history would be Sonia O'Sullivan. I'd pick her ahead of Seán Kelly or Roy Keane or Pádraig Harrington. Yet she wouldn't have had a hope against the top male athletes of her day. In fact, she'd have lagged a long way behind even the pretty good ones.

O'Sullivan's Irish 5,000m record time of 14.41.02, set when winning silver at the Sydney Olympics, is probably her finest performance. But the Irish all-time list contains a total of 78 men who ran the distance in under 14 minutes. Her national 1,500m record is over a dozen seconds slower than the men's under 18 record set last year by Meath's Kevin McGrath. Last week her fellow Corkonian Darragh McElhinney ran a faster 3,000m than O'Sullivan's best mark. He's 16.

Only a fool would think that this lessens O'Sullivan's achievement or that the 100-plus Irishmen who could run 5,000m faster than her were superior athletes. These things have to be seen in context. The context is that physiological differences between men and women mean that the best men have always run faster, jumped further and thrown longer than the best women.

This has implications for women athletes at a time when society seems to be coming round to the idea that a man who identifies as a woman should be treated as one. Certain of these men will enjoy a definite advantage over female competitors.

There are people outside sport who don't fully realise this. At the time of the Caster Semenya controversy there were plenty of social media comments to the effect of, 'What's the big deal? If she wants to run as a woman, why shouldn't she?' There were even suggestions that we needed a brave new world where all sports saw men and women competing against each other.

The problem with this is that the separation of events into men's and women's categories isn't the result of a sexist conspiracy. By and large the adoption of a unisex format at the Olympics would leave women almost entirely without medals. No female athlete would be able to make a final for one thing. This is a kind of affront to the enlightened anti-sexist mind. We feel Williams should be able to beat Murray. But we can't go twisting the facts to suit our feelings. There is plenty of real sexism to be tackled in sport, in the areas of access, profile and funding for example. Furores like last week's are mere diversions.

Had John McEnroe said he thought Serena Williams could beat the top men, it would have been a feel-good story. It would also have been Fake News. There's enough of that doing the rounds.

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