McEnroe clarifies his comments on Serena Williams

John McEnroe has been skewered on sports talk radio and social media since saying during an NPR interview Sunday that Serena Williams would “be like 700 in the world” if she played on the men’s tour. He explained his remarks on Wednesday.

During the NPR interview, McEnroe called Williams “the greatest female player ever.” When the host of the show, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, took issue with his “female” qualifier, McEnroe responded by saying that as dominant as Williams has been, winning an all-time best 23 Grand Slam titles, she would struggle on the men’s tour.

“I have a lot of respect for Serena, she’s been great for the game, and people that know me know that’s how I feel,” McEnroe said on an ESPN conference call to preview Wimbledon. “Look, if it wasn’t for Serena, American tennis would be in even deeper trouble than it is. But when I was asked the question, and I said, `She is greatest female player ever,’ and I was asked, `Why don’t you say the best player ever?’ I’ve said that many times...

“This is not something that’s earth shattering, that I feel there’s a difference in the level of the women and the men, though I was trying to say how great I thought Serena was and how good she’s been for American tennis. Maybe it would have been better not to have said it. But it’s my opinion. Apples and oranges. I didn’t realize it would (elicit such a negative reaction).”

McEnroe has praised Williams throughout her career, and when she won Wimbledon in 2015, he called her “arguably the greatest athlete of the last 100 years.”

On Wednesday, McEnroe expressed his “frustration” that people continue to compare women’s tennis to men’s, and that it doesn’t seem to happen in other sports.

“That's part of the frustration that I'm having, that people keep talking about it,” he said. “I know Bobby Riggs played Billie Jean 45 years ago, but I continue to sort of not understand why this is such a topic of conversation. If so, have the men and women play together. If the women want to do that, if that would be good for tennis, I'm all for trying things that would be good for tennis.

“I don't understand why tennis seems to be the only sport that this is talked about.”

McEnroe’s full quote from the Sunday NPR interview was:

“Well, because if she was in, if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world. That doesn’t mean I don’t think Serena is an incredible player. I do, but the reality of what would happen would be I think something that perhaps it’d be a little higher, perhaps it’d be a little lower. And on a given day, Serena could beat some players. I believe because she’s so incredibly strong mentally that she could overcome some situations where players would choke ’cause she’s been in it so many times, so many situations at Wimbledon, The U.S. Open, etc. But if she had to just play the circuit — the men’s circuit — that would be an entirely different story.”

Williams, who is pregnant and on leave from the tennis tour, responded to McEnroe on Twitter.

“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.”

Williams has stated in the past that the men’s and women’s games are very different, going so far as to suggest she would lose 6-0, 6-0 to Andy Murray.

“For me, men’s tennis and women’s tennis are completely, almost, two separate sports,” Williams said during a 2013 appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman”. “If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes. 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. I love to play women’s tennis. I only want to play girls because I don’t want to be embarrassed.”