Attempting to describe the true level of Serena Williams’s greatness is pointless. Or, rather, was pointless. In 2017, three things are certain: death, taxes, and misogynistic asshats who devalue the accomplishments of women, necessitating nonsense activities like defending Serena Williams’s greatness.
Of course, no superlative speaks the power of the tennis great better than beholding her combination of strength, grace, ferocity, and femininity in the flesh.
A Vanity Fair cover released Tuesday morning featuring Williams naked and pregnant—real-life Wonder Woman, brought to you by Annie Leibovitz—eviscerated an irritating controversy involving ill-advised comments from former tennis player/current tennis announcer/perennial rabble-rousing twit John McEnroe like one of her 120 mph serves.
The whole thing has played out like a one-sided volley between Williams and one of her routinely overmatched foes, whom Williams can nimbly and forcefully dispose of in straight sets.
McEnroe is on a press tour for his new book, But Seriously, and gave an interview with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro in which she pressed him on his claim in the book that Williams is the best female player in the world. Why specify “female,” she asks? Why not just say best player, period?
“Well because…if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world,” McEnroe replied.
The bat signal was sent. The internet was summoned. The backlash unleashed at McEnroe like a firing squad shooting off 140-character bullets.
This isn’t the first time McEnroe has expressed a lack of respect for women in the sport, after all.
In 2010, he argued that the women’s tour should be scaled back to accommodate the female players’ inferior physical and mental strength: “They shouldn’t be playing as many events as the men,” he told CBS Sports then. “The women have it better in tennis than in any other sport, thanks to Billie Jean King. But you shouldn’t push them to play more than they’re capable of.”
Williams responded to McEnroe with her trademark blend of vicious class.
“Dear John I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based,” she tweeted. “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.”
That should have been enough to shut things down then and there. When the woman with 23 grand slam victories, $84 million in career prize money, twice that in endorsements and appearance fees, won the Australian Open while pregnant, and who shared the Lemonade throne with Beyoncé deigns to defend herself, the defense rests. It’s never rested faster.
And yet, appearing on CBS This Morning Tuesday, McEnroe refused to apologize for his gross underestimation of Williams’s talent—an underestimation that, whether or not he admits it, stems completely from the fact that she’s a woman.
He did say, “I didn’t know it would create controversy,” and made a few self-deprecating jokes about he’d rank 1,200 on the women’s circuit if he was playing now. The sound you heard in the 8 am hour this morning was the world’s collective groan.
Belaboring the buffoonery—and whether this was the CBS producers or McEnroe or the complicit conflagration of both, who’s to say—he then played a game where he ranked the best tennis players, begrudgingly throwing Williams in as number five, throwing a bone to the wolves who came for him. “You happy now?” he said. McEnroe, the wolves don’t need your damn bone.
Here’s the thing, McEnroe’s argument, as told to NPR, about whether Williams is the best tennis player overall or the best female tennis player is actually reasoned. The men’s circuit is different. The play is different. Williams is stronger than some of the men, and some of the men are stronger than she is, but the difference is that the men in that circuit are conditioned to play at a level that Williams, if she were to appear in one or two stunt matches against a high-ranked player, isn’t conditioned to.
But to assert that she would be 700th in the male circuit is total nonsense and offensive devaluing. Sure, we can dismiss that as hyperbole in the moment of a live interview. But to double down on the assertion that whether she is playing against the boys or in her own circuit against fellow phenomenal women matters in the argument of the greatest tennis player ever is ridiculous.
And that’s where the Vanity Fair article, which was written by Buzz Bissinger, comes in.
The piece chronicles how Williams’s unlikely love story with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian mirrored her unrivaled and continued rise in the game as she enters her mid-30s. In it, Bissinger suggests that Williams is a contender for the greatest athlete of her time. Williams’s response: “If I were a man, then it wouldn’t be any sort of a question.”
“She may well be right,” Bissinger writes, “a society still conditioned to believe that men are better than women in everything except the superfluous.” Later in the place, he reasons that Williams is the best tennis player in history—unlike McEnroe, refusing to gender the claim.
In the conversation of the greatest athletes of all time, it isn’t considered whether Michael Jordan could knock out Muhammad Ali in the ring, if Babe Ruth could best Secretariat in a horse race, or if Michael Phelps has a better slap shot than Wayne Gretzky.
It’s about dominance. It’s about prowess. It’s about unprecedented accomplishment, records, elevation of the game, forwarding of the sport, and the spectacle of performance. It is about all those things that Serena Williams has accomplished in her still-rich career that get short-changed in the conversation because she is a woman.
As Bissinger writes, Williams is the best tennis player history, owed to her 85.76 percent winning percentage, 72 tournament wins, and record prize and endorsement earnings.
Williams is well aware of this. She spoke about it candidly in an interview for ESPN’s “The Undefeated” last December with rapper Common.
“I think if I were a man, I would have been in that conversation a long time ago,” she said. “I think being a woman is just a whole new set of problems from society that you have to deal with, as well as being black, so it’s a lot to deal with—and especially lately. I’ve been able to speak up for women’s rights because I think that gets lost in color, or gets lost in cultures. Women make up so much of this world, and, yeah, if I were a man, I would have 100 percent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago.”
Demanding credit for your greatness is nothing new, as anyone who has watch roughly three seconds of an interview with someone like LeBron James or Lonzo Ball’s cringe-inducing dad.
There’s a forcefulness and empowerment in Williams stepping up to claim her due, but it’s also refreshingly missing an ego or a desperation that typically accompanies what can often read as a petulant plea for praise.
And while it’s meaningful to witness someone like Williams refuse to demure and be bashful or humble about her accomplishments, it’s just as refreshing to see her on the cover of Vanity Fair, recounting her love story, discussing her excitement for motherhood, and standing there proud, strong, and pregnant.
She’s the greatest, yes. And she’s also got other shit to do while being it.