John McEnroe took a step back on Tuesday, saying he really doesn’t want to play a tennis match against Serena Williams, the greatest female star in the sport, and that he doesn’t know why people keep asking him about such nonsense.
But then, being McEnroe, he stepped right back into the ring.
“If it’s overwhelming, something we need to save tennis, then we’ll see,” McEnroe said about such a meeting, during an ESPN-sponsored conference call with reporters. “I’m 56 years old, and I like to get out on the court. I can still hit a pretty decent ball.”
There are times when McEnroe plays to the crowd, and then times when he doth protest too much. A few days earlier, on “Jimmy Kimmel Live”, McEnroe told the host he thought he could beat Williams. “I have hit with Serena,” he said. “I believe that I can still take her.”
During the conference call, however, McEnroe said such talk shouldn’t overshadow Serena’s bid for a calendar Grand Slam that enters its final test starting next week at the U.S. Open. He had a point this time. There is little doubt that Billie Jean King achieved great things for her sport, and for women athletes, by defeating Bobby Riggs back in 1973. There would be considerably less to gain now for Williams, simply because fans already recognize her enormous talents and the women’s tour has exploded.
“Me personally, people have asked me, and that shows you that tennis has problems if this is something we have to do, a Battle of the Sexes,” McEnroe said. “I don’t get why it’s brought up in tennis all the time. It was so long ago when Bobby Riggs played and it’s a totally different time. Why don’t they ask Agassi? Or a guy who’s (ranked) 10 or 20? Always seems like they’re challenging me.”
There is a reason that people ask these questions, and not just of McEnroe. Williams has so completely dominated the women’s game — dropping only two matches all year — it is at times only natural to wonder how she would fare against the men.
John and Patrick McEnroe declined Tuesday to project where Serena would land in the ATP rankings.
What is clear, however, is that Williams will enter the Open as the odds-on favorite to gain the Grand Slam despite the burden of expectations. Williams herself announced after winning the last tuneup tournament in Cincinnati that she was mentally prepared, and was hoping to embrace the occasion in New York.
Although Serena is already the title holder in all four majors, John McEnroe asserted that winning them in the same calendar year should be considered an even larger feat because of the sheer pressure involved.
“The calendar year, it’s even more of an incredible achievement,” McEnroe said. “If you keep it in perspective, how people ramp up the pressure, there is a difference in winning it in the same year. People don’t bring it up in the same way.
“Obviously, she’ll be ready for this to be over with,” said McEnroe, who is hosting a benefit on Wednesday on Randall’s Island for his tennis academy, featuring Rafa Nadal and Nick Kyrgios. “It’s a lot to be put on your shoulders. There’s a lot more riding on it than should be, perhaps, considering what she’s done in her career. She’s a human being. She’s excited, but she’s ready for this to be done.”
Patrick McEnroe, who also will be commentating for ESPN, compared Williams’ calendar Grand Slam attempt to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
“It’s magnified because it’s been happening for a few months,” Patrick McEnroe said. “It’s not like she’s winning, 6-2, 6-2, every match. There’s the benefit of playing two-of-three set matches (for women), but also the pressure of two-of-three. An upset is slightly more likely.”
Both brothers see an absence of legitimate challengers out there in Flushing Meadows, even though upstart Belinda Bencic, 18, knocked off Williams at the recent Rogers Cup in Toronto. John gave Victoria Azarenka the best shot, while Patrick tabbed Simona Halep.
“But I was a little surprised when she said (after losing the Cincinnati final), ‘I hope Serena wins the Grand Slam,’ ” Patrick said, of Halep. “Some of them don’t want to beat her.
“I just don’t think Justine Henin would ever have said, ‘I hope you win the next Grand Slam.’”
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