Is this another case of backhanded misogyny in sports?

By Ea Francisco | Lead photo from Instagram

Retired tennis star John McEnroe sparked fire in his interview with NPR after saying that Serena Williams would rank 700th if she played in the men’s circuit. And Williams fired back with her own response on Monday:

In the interview last Sunday, McEnroe tells NPR that he considers Williams the best female tennis player ever, but it’s a whole different thing when putting her alongside male tennis players.

“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,” he says to NPR but further adds, “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”.

“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. I suppose anything’s possible at some stage.”

Needless to say, a lot of people were not happy with how he answered that question, and praised Williams for how she handled the situation.

While others agreed that McEnroe was right about his assessment.

It’s tough to say because men’s and women’s tennis are on completely different levels. Battles of the sexes have been staged in the past (the Williams Sisters were actually beaten by German tennis player Karsten Braasch at the 1998 Australian open when he was ranked 203rd) but at a time when the fight for respect and equal pay are hallmarks of tennis’ progress, comments like this, intentional or not or within a context, still remind us of sexism in sports. Huffington Post contributors editor Angelina Chapin brought up a valid point in her 2016 post “The Sexism in Tennis Needs to Stop”

“The true root of any justification for a return to unequal pay is sexism. For proof, just look at how men speak publicly about female athletes. Because Serena Williams is strong and black, her body is seen as a threat, not an asset. One journalist wrote that she is “built like one of the monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas.” Because Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard is svelte and blonde, she was asked by a male interviewer to twirl her skirt after winning a January match at the Australian Open.”

A tricky debate but we can all be certain of one thing.