John McEnroe is Still Out of Touch

John McEnroe put his foot in his mouth after his most recent controversial remarks, this time involving Serena Williams.

Updated: June 28, 2017 • 6:29 PM ET

John McEnroe has been known to make controversial remarks.

John McEnroe’s rollout of his second memoir, But Seriously, got off to a rocky start. And let’s make one thing clear: it’s all his fault. 


Not because the seven-time Grand Slam champion praised and then abruptly put his foot in his mouth when opining about the greatest woman’s tennis player, Serena Williams, but because McEnroe has no clue how abrasive and out of touch he is. On top of that, he doesn’t give a hoot about changing. 


Within seconds of McEnroe’s arrival Tuesday night as a guest on CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the host’s acute sense of timing and comedic relief successfully messed with the tennis legend until the bombast crumbled. He was speechless.


“In 2015 after Wimbledon you said Serena Williams is arguably the greatest athlete of the last 100 years,” Colbert said. 


McEnroe nodded in agreement, adding, “She’s certainly one of the greatest athletes of the last 100 years.”


Colbert jumped on McEnroe as fast as the former tennis protege jumped all over chair umpires he bullied at Wimbledon back in the early to mid-1980s. 


“I was just giving you the out,” Colbert said to McEnroe, laughing. “That was the exit door. That was the lifeboat I was throwing you.


“Why do you have to stab it with a knife?”


Johnny Mac had done it again. Oops. But his tempering of words, from “best athlete” to “one of the best athletes” is pure McEnroe. Why? Because he doesn’t care and has no anchor to which he pegs his character. He’s John McEnroe. Is that enough to parade around the world yelling at people to buy his new book? Is that enough to sit in the NBC booth during Grand Slams and spew alternative facts to millions of fans? 




But you can bet your bottom pound sterling note that McEnroe will be annoying fans, as he calls matches during the upcoming fortnight of competition at Wimbledon, the most prestigious Grand Slam of the year. The fact that McEnroe is allowed in that booth is one of the biggest ironies and slaps in the face for the major. 


In 1981, after the American won Wimbledon, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club retaliated for the many distasteful acts authored by McEnroe. It refused him entry into the club as an honorary member, which had always been the custom. He was the first and only player who was denied entry by the committee that runs the event.


“In the past it has normally been the custom to elect winners of the singles championship as honorary members of the All England Club for their services to the game of lawn tennis,” the committee’s wrote in a statement, as reported by The New York Times.


The committee went on to say it “has decided not to elect Mr. McEnroe a member at the present time in view of his behavior on court in certain matches, which, in their opinion, brought the game into disrepute.”


McEnroe should take a few English lessons from the English. But it wouldn’t help. He has no core from which to reconcile his impetuous nature. 


Colbert introduced McEnroe as the “most opinionated” tennis player of all time, which is accurate. But with the label comes the risk of crossing boundaries of social norms, expected morals and just plain decency. And when that person has no clue what’s going to come out of his mouth and probably doesn’t care, retribution will be his wrath. 


McEnroe’s current media maelstrom ignited during an interview with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro.


“Let’s talk about Serena Williams,” Garcia-Navarro said. “You say she is the best female player in the world in the book.”


Yep, McEnroe agreed she was the “best female player ever — no question.”


But Garcia-Navarro took it a step further, asking McEnroe why he qualified his praise by more narrowly defining her greatness. “You know, why say female player?”


“Well because if she was in, if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world.”


McEnroe defended his comment, sinking deeper and deeper into the misogynistic muck he created with the distinction. He put Serena at the disadvantaged end of the sport stick because she was female. Every hair on the neck of millions of women came to attention. Are you serious, the collective cried? Are we going to have this conversation again?


The entire comparison between men’s and women’s performances in a single sport, like tennis, should be gutted from conversation. It always ends up with a sexist tone and message. Free speech. Sure, but women always lose when this line of conversation pops up. And it is usually brought to our attention by a man. It’s sports, for goodness sake. Men dominate sports. Men dominate sports journalism, as well.


And let’s clarify one more thing, too. Garcia-Navarro was not to blame for asking McEnroe to expand on his comment. That’s her job. So those of you out there siding with McEnroe because the reporter did her job, well, you can sit down, too. 


To add insult to injury, McEnroe refused to apologize for his comments Tuesday morning on “CBS This Morning.” 


“Would you like to apologize?” Norah O’Donnell asked McEnroe. 




Fine, don’t apologize. There are those who will laud your stubborn ways and ignorant manners as they do President Trump’s similar behaviors. Bombast brethren they are.


Yet McEnroe’s mind is so entrenched in prejudice, he committed another fault on Colbert as the New Yorker tried to explain himself regarding Serena and that 700 ranking.  


“Do they say that about girl basketball players, that they’re as good as Michael Jordan,” McEnroe said, trailing off as Colbert endearingly touched him with, “You might say women’s basketball players instead of girl basketball players.” 


McEnroe chuckled and dropped his head, once again caught in his act, which is no more an act than a circus clown squirting bubbles from a toy trombone. He really sees women as girls. And, he has six daughters. Pity. 


McEnroe doesn’t stand alone in his perceptions and opinions, but he’s a lightening rod for them because of his history of outrageous acts on tennis courts. With Wimbledon set for Monday, he’ll be a familiar voice for Eurosport and NBC on the weekends. His tennis commentary has not reached the level of controversy his recent spat with Serena has, but those who follow tennis closely and listen to him call matches know without a doubt that he’s possibly the worst commentator out there. 


During The French Open, the conversation moved to Venus Williams, Serena’s 37-year-old sister. McEnroe asked, “What’s her ranking?” on air for Tennis Channel. He didn’t know Venus’s ranking or seeding. A travesty for tennis. An embarrassment for Tennis Channel. 


When a ball was called out, he jumped to his routine about line calls, a familiar and worn dialog. Since Hawkeye isn’t used on red clay, McEnroe can dig into his experience and entertain while disparaging the lack of the technology that definitively says whether a ball hit any part of a line within .03 mm tolerance. But he didn’t know the measurement and fumbled the entire conversation, again revealing his lack of knowledge and seeming unwillingness to read and use available research. 


McEnroe will be well poised to rattle on about serve-and-volley tennis during Wimbledon, as well. He’ll point out that players don’t serve to the body enough. He’ll say they need to use more under-spin, which would keep the ball low for tall players. And, goodness knows, there are a lot of tall players. He will leave out the course of progress racquets and strings have played in the changing styles of play, if only to knock them to elevate his uninformed opinions. Enough.


Although McEnroe thinks he has come to terms with his self-proclaimed addiction to crossing the line, he hasn’t. He remains locked in the past and inside his prejudices, even though he said his new book was supposed to show how “I’m growing as a person,” he told Colbert. 


Serena Williams doesn’t think McEnroe has grown. Her pleas on Twitter put him in his place. 


“Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based,” Williams 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.”

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