And make no mistake, John McEnroe was being charitable. You can listen to the NPR interview here.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy watching women’s tennis.
Back in the day, I was a huge Martina Navratilova fan. While I hate her politics, she was a phenomenal athlete. She fundamentally changed the shape of the women’s circuit. Once she got serious, she became the fittest superathlete that women’s tennis had ever seen. In her prime, Chris Evert had no chance against her.
But had she played against her male contemporaries–Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Wilander, Becker–it would not have even been close. Even a lower-tier men’s player would have destroyed Martina, and she knew it.
And while Serena Williams is phenomenal–in their primes, I have no doubt that she would annihilate Martina–let’s not kid ourselves: if she played even a mediocre player on the men’s circuit, it would be a rout. She would be lucky to win a single game. When they were teens, the Williams sisters each played a set against the #203-ranked men’s player. He didn’t even take it seriously, and he still beat both of them: 6-1 (against Serena), 6-2 (against Venus).
Some of my friends–who, like me, have played a fair amount of tennis–and I were discussing this. One guy made note that the speed of Serena’s first serve is in the same league as the men.
And to her credit, Serena has clocked serves as fast as 128 mph, which is impressive.
The problem, however, is that winning in against the men requires more than simply having a big serve. Speed only gets your foot in the door. To win against the men, you need speed, placement, spin, and even surprise. This is because the men are quicker than the women, they will pick up her motion and have good anticipation. Many of her big serves that would go unreturned against other women would come back, down the line–or at her toenails–at 100+mph against the men. She would have a hard time following her serves into the net.
One of the guys observed that, to hold consistently against the men, she would probably need at least 40 aces.
That would never happen. The big-servers among the men past and present almost never hit that many aces. In fact, since 1991, only 11 different men since have hit 44 or more aces in a match. A big server is lucky to hit 20 aces in a 5-set match.
In his upset victory against Jimmy Connors in the 1983 Wimbledon Quarterfinals, Kevin Curren, one of the best-serving men of the 1980s, blasted “only” 33 aces (a phenomenal number).
In the 1992 Wimbledon final, Andre Agassi endured a 37-ace barrage (a Wimbledon finals record) from Goran Ivanisevic, one of the biggest servers on the tour, to prevail in 5 sets.
Serena Williams would have to serve bigger than those guys–on a consistent basis–just to have a chance of holding her own serve.
Complicating matters is her second serve. On her second serve, against the women, she wins the points less than 50% of the time.
And that’s just when she serves.
Against the men, she would need to be able to return serves consistently. Against the men, those serves will come in a lot faster, and with more spin. The men will have a lower toss which will make their serves harder to read and anticipate.
Even their second serves are going to be coming in faster, and with more spin. She will have a hard time attacking the second serves of the men, in contrast with the powder-puff second serves of her female opponents. Her chances of breaking serve against a man would be remote: she would need for him to provide some free points via double-faults.
Aside from serves, she would have quite the challenge with the ground game: including baseline play, approach shots, ability to close in on the net, and volleying. At the net, the men will hit the ball straight into her body–it will come in faster than she is used to seeing–and they will jam her, forcing her to hit weak volleys. They will hit passing shots crosscourt and down the line, with heavy topspin. They will draw her to the net and stretch her with low-trajectory offensive lobs. Their defensive lobs will have heavy topspin, and will extend rallies that normally end quickly for her. Individual points will become more expensive physically for her than they are now. This will wear her down over the course of the match.
If she manages to take one set–the chances of that happening are close to zero–she’ll still have to take two more if she’s in a major tournament. She will need the endurance to go five sets where, in the women’s circuit, she only needs to prepare for three sets.
Serena is a great player on the women’s tour, I would suggest that she is the best women’s player of all-time.
But against the men, she would have no chance.