When met with the proposition of competing in a gimmicky Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Bobby Riggs in 1973, Billie Jean King recounted this week that she quickly understood the stakes.
“’I don’t have a choice,’” she said on the Boomer and Carton radio show recently. “And then I knew it was about social change.”
While her victory undoubtedly emboldened girls and women to take up competition, it did little to change the status female athletes are resigned to by fans and media.
That was on display when John McEnroe earlier this week made the baseless claim that Serena Williams would rank 700th on the men’s tennis circuit, dredging up a no-win scenario for female athletes in a worthless and unnecessary sports debate.
Williams has won 23 Grand Slams, redefined women’s tennis through her physical game and even become a cultural and feminist icon. It’s hard to find an athlete of either sex who has had as much significance in her or his sport.
Yet the criticism is nothing new for Williams, who despite her dominance has a career filled with people attempting to discredit her accomplishments with insults laced in racism and sexism.
Early in her career, critics wondered whether she had an unfair advantage playing against other women because of her strong physique. In 2016, Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore said that WTA players “ride on the coattails of the men,” and should “go down every night on (their) knees” to thank ATP stars for tennis’ popularity.
“We, as women, have come a long way,” Williams said in response at the time. “We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point … I thought we were a little bit further along.”
But here we are again. Not much further along than 1973 or 2017.
McEnroe’s comments — which not coincidentally stirred up controversy as he goes on a book tour — diminished Williams’ and female athletes’ achievements by stamping an unneeded asterisk next to her unparalleled accomplishments.
Remember it was Williams who corrected a reporter who had qualified her as the greatest female athlete with the retort, “I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.’” And it was her sister Venus who championed equal pay for Grand Slam victories.
The issue isn’t where she would be ranked or that McEnroe doesn’t think she could beat 699 top-rated men, but that her game is being compared to men’s in the first place.
“Let’s say a 130-pound boxer might be the best ever,” former player and commentator Brad Gilbert aptly said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday, according to USA Today. “You don’t ask if he could beat a heavyweight.”
What about women who choose to enter a field against men, like golfer Annika Sorenstam or like skier Lindsey Vonn hopes to do?
Like most elite athletes, Vonn said this week she is driven to push her limits. That competitiveness should be appreciated and encouraged.
But if Vonn would lose, critics will interpret it as a knock on her supremacy in skiing and she would hear a chorus of I-told-you-so’s from the McEnroe bros. A victory would be seen as an exception but it wouldn’t change the tired man vs. woman narrative.
What could change the storyline would be equal media coverage — which nearly every major media outlet fails to provide for various reasons — and equitable pay. Female athletes would finally begin to receive credibility and status to be appreciated in their own right without being compared to men.
In her Twitter response to McEnroe this week, Williams asked him to “please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based. 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."
Williams sounded too busy to entertain McEnroe’s effort to reignite this senseless debate. We should follow her lead.