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Serena Williams vs. John McEnroe: It’s game, set, match Serena with a nude Vanity Fair cover to boot

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Serena Williams let John McEnroe have it in the best way possible Monday evening.

Williams served up two flaming tweets that deftly singed McEnroe for saying “if she played the men’s circuit, she’d be like 700 in the world.” And, in case he missed her point about female empowerment, maybe McEnroe can pick up a copy of Vanity Fair, which features the nude and pregnant Williams on the cover.

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

Never mind that the images, taken by Annie Leibovitz, pretty much strip away the vestiges of privacy; Serena’s on a roll.

McEnroe made his comments in an interview Sunday with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro and, in an appearance Tuesday on “CBS This Morning,” he was offered the chance to apologize and said, “No.” He added that he did not mean to create a controversy or to bother her during her pregnancy.

John McEnroe tried to explain his statement that fellow tennis player Serena Williams would be ranked "like 700 in the world" if she played on the men's circuit (Video: Reuters)

Too late. The seven-time major singles champion is trying to sell his “But Seriously” memoir and revived a “Battle of the Sexes” narrative that most people would have considered long dead. Garcia-Navarro asked why McEnroe would qualify statement by calling Williams the best female player in the world. That was chum in the water.

“Oh!” McEnroe replied. “Uh, she’s not, you mean, the best player in the world, period?”

“Yeah, the best tennis player in the world,” Garcia-Navarro said. “You know, why say female player?”

McEnroe: If Serena played the men’s circuit…

“Well, because if she was in, if she played the men’s circuit she’d be like 700 in the world,” McEnroe said. ” … 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. 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, so many situations at Wimbledon, The U.S. Open, etc. But if she had to just play the circuit — the men’s circuit — that would be an entirely different story.”

McEnroe is right, of course, but … who cares? Think McEnroe could win the Australian Open in the searing heat of Melbourne while pregnant? Both are silly debates, truly deserving of “you cannot be serious.” Buzz Bissinger, author of the Vanity Fair piece, calls Serena the best tennis player in history, with her aggregate winning percentage of 85.76 percent and 72 tournament victories. She has, he points out, earned more than $84 million in prize money and nearly twice that in endorsements and appearance fees. In the early stages of pregnancy, she didn’t drop a set as she won all seven matches at the Australian Open.

How great is she? How does one quantify greatness and how does gender fit in? It’s a subject Williams has considered before. Now 35, she is increasingly aware that what remains of an athletic career that began when she was a child is approaching its end. Taking stock of the social and racial landscape, she’s assessing her place in it and as part of that, she knows just how different the debate about whether she is one of sports’ all-time greats might be if only …

“I think if I were a man, I would have been in that conversation a long time ago,” Williams said last December in an interview with rapper Common for ESPN’s “The Undefeated.” “I think being a woman is just a whole new set of problems from society that you have to deal with, as well as being black, so it’s a lot to deal with — and especially lately. I’ve been able to speak up for women’s rights because I think that gets lost in color, or gets lost in cultures. Women make up so much of this world, and, yeah, if I were a man, I would have 100 percent been considered the greatest ever a long time ago.”

Forty-four years after the ‘Battle of the Sexes,’ a dumb debate rages on

As part of the journey of 2016, Williams wrote an open letter “to all incredible women who strive for excellence” in which she urged them to “dream big” and concluded:

As we know, women have to break down many barriers on the road to success. One of those barriers is the way we are constantly reminded we are not men, as if it is a flaw. People call me one of the “world’s greatest female athletes.” Do they say LeBron is one of the world’s best male athletes? Is Tiger? Federer? Why not? They are certainly not female. We should never let this go unchallenged. We should always be judged by our achievements, not by our gender.
For everything I’ve achieved in my life, I am profoundly grateful to have experienced the highs and lows that come with success. It is my hope that my story, and yours, will inspire all young women out there to push for greatness and follow their dreams with steadfast resilience. We must continue to dream big, and in doing so, we empower the next generation of women to be just as bold in their pursuits.

Let it be noted that McEnroe called Williams “arguably the greatest athlete of the last 100 years” when she won Wimbledon in 2015 and also that he didn’t qualify that based on gender. On CBS on Tuesday, he was pressed to say where, at 58, he would rank. “About 1,200 in the world.” So whatever his point was earlier, Serena countered it effectively, with the Vanity Fair cover as an exclamation point. Take that.