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Keith Strudler: Battle Of The Sexes, Part II

It was well over 40 years ago that Billy Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in a tennis match played in the cathedral of har tru, the Houston Astrodome. This event was billed as the Battle of the Sexes and placed a staunch advocate for fair if not equal recognition for women’s sports against an articulated male chauvinist. To some spectators, and there were many, this match would let us know if women can compete against men in sports, where they were largely relegated to the sidelines. Of course, this was far more complex than that, given the age disparity and showmanship of the affair. Regardless, King’s victory was important in furthering the progress of female athletes. Maybe better put, a loss would have been catastrophic, with a top female tennis pro losing to an againg male has-been, someone that couldn’t even stay on the court with current male pros.

That debate – can a top female tennis player compete with a man – is still raging, some 44 years later. It manifest itself just this week as tennis legend John McEnroe was asked about Serena Williams, who, as you likely know, is commonly regarded as the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. Interviewed Sunday on NPR’s Weekend Edition, McEnroe affirmed that fact. But when asked to clarify if she was simply the best of all time, no qualifier, McEnroe said that if she played on the men’s tour, she’d be around 700th in the world. He did note that Serena is an amazing player, but up consistently against elite male athletes, she’d fare relatively poorly.

And thus, the firestorm.

Serena replied back – by twitter, of course – and asked Mac to leave her alone, in under 280 characters. It was two tweets. And with that, it’s shades of Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs all over again. Although in all fairness, McEnroe noted that he wouldn’t break the top 1200 on women’s tour right now. So I wouldn’t worry about Battle of the Sexes, Part II.

Two things aren’t surprising here. First, that McEnroe didn’t want to apologize the next day. Second, that this virtual exchange would get disproportionate attention and polarization. Any comment section for this story looks like a conversation from 5th grade recess, if 5th graders were also all jerks. The arguments often veer far from either the topic at hand or the realities of athletic prowess. To be fair, the average person has absolutely no idea about the relative talents of tennis players that do not, by definition, play each other. This is like debating how a dinosaur would like fruit punch. We just don’t know.

We also know that much of this angst is simply a question of interpretation. In other words, yes, it is undeniable that Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time – with all due respect to Steffi Graf and others. And yes, physiologically speaking, elite male tennis players have natural competitive advantages over elite female tennis players – as they do in basketball, soccer, and so on. So this notion of best is something of interpretation. You could call Serena Williams the best tennis player of all time because of how she dominates her competition and still believe that she’d fare quite poorly on the men’s circuit. Those two thoughts are not incongruous. But they do force you to ignore the literal, which clearly became part of McEnroe’s answer.

But what’s more interesting about these comments and the aftershocks is how invested people still are in this sporting battle of the sexes. Clearly, many people care very deeply about the competitive sports balance, or imbalance, between men and women. And mind you, these are elite level athletes that have absolutely no resemblance to the general public. In other words, your average guy who plays in his local tennis league couldn’t stand on the court with Serena or any other women on the pro tour. Forget about the guy on his couch who last played tennis at summer camp. Yet so many of those very people want to make it abundantly clear that no woman can match the athletic prowess of a dominant male. It’s as if the suggestion was a threat to their very place in the universe. The opposite seems apparent in criticism of McEnroe’s answer, which, not surprisingly, perhaps could have been more diplomatic. McEnroe’s critics may be recoiling over yet another reminder that women and men are treated differently. So it’s not simply that a male tennis player is physically more developed than a female one. It’s that this physiology has justified our history of gender practices in the classroom, boardroom, bedroom, and beyond. So, perhaps this sensitivity is understandable.

I don’t expect another battle of the sexes tennis match, at least not with Johnny Mac and Serena. But for the record, I’d watch.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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