“I knew that if push should ever come to shove, I would have no problem beating Venus or Serena,” writes John McEnroe in his otherwise insightful new book, You Cannot Be Serious.
Even when it doesn’t come off—as with the McEnroe-Williams challenge or a planned exhibition match between golfer Karrie Webb and some male PGA pros—the concept of women competing against men fascinates us. There’s a reason why the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs match remains one of the most watched sporting events of all time.
King/Riggs was clearly a landmark moment in the history of women’s sports, an event that legitimized the whole endeavor of women sweating for pay. But at the same time, King’s horse-whipping of old Bobby was the first step onto a slippery slope. Intergender competition threatens the whole concept of women’s sports. After all, isn’t women’s sports one of the last bastions of that Brown v. Topeka Board of Education premise, separate but equal?
Hard though it may be to admit, McEnroe did have a point. Could he beat either of the Williams sisters? In his dreams. With the advent of oversized graphite rackets, tennis has changed so much over the past 20 years that Venus and Serena routinely hit serves harder—110 mph and up—than McEnroe did in his prime. Add the fact that their 20-year-old legs can move them around the court faster than a 40-year-old McEnroe, and you can see why it’s a good thing for Mac’s ego that the sisters laughed off his challenge.
But his larger point—that a good college player could beat the top women in the world—can’t be dismissed. In fact, it happens every day. All the top women on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour practice with male hitting partners—generally former college players and top juniors—who give them more than a run for their money.
When Martina Navratilova was at the top of her game, there was a small brouhaha over the question of whether she could beat the 100th-ranked male player in the world. That match never came off, but a more interesting and relevant one did. A couple of years ago in Australia, Venus and Serena challenged Kaarsten Braasch to a match on a lark. Braasch, then No. 200 in the world, is otherwise best known for prompting the Association of Tennis Professionals to ban smoking during mid-match changeovers. It was no contest. Braasch beat Serena 6-1, then beat her sister 6-2. That’s why Serena’s joke about playing some men’s tour events—the comments that prompted Mac’s in-your-face rebuttal—remained just that: a joke.
A gender gap exists in some other sports, and if anything, it’s larger. Margaret Okayo, the women’s winner in the New York City Marathon, finished in a time of 2:24:21, good enough for 37th overall, less than a minute ahead of the winner of the men’s 40-49 age group. In contact sports, the gap widens even more. Women’s college basketball teams don’t scrimmage against the men’s JV—they routinely practice against men’s intramural teams during the pre-season. Stanford coach Tara Van Derveer suspends the practice during the season for fear that her players will get hurt. WNBA teams do the same thing, practicing not against NBA scrubs, but against squads of aging male gym rats at local YMCAs.
The few circumstances in which women actually compete against guys without an asterisk—Lynn Hill’s becoming the first and only person to free-climb the Nose at Yosemite in a single day or Michelle Mouton’s becoming the World Rally Driving champion in the mid ’80s—are the exceptions that prove the rule. From a purely practical point of view, this all-too-real gender gap has raised the level of women’s sports. While Andre Agassi has to search far to find a player who hits as hard as Marat Safin, Jennifer Capriati imitators are a dime a dozen, as long as you’re OK with the pseudo-Jenny’s wearing shorts instead of a skirt. And while scrubs who can mimic Shaq’s size or Kobe’s hops are nowhere to be seen, on-court clones of Lisa Leslie are as close as the nearest YMCA. Female runners have used middle-of-the-pack males to act as both rabbits and as bodyguards to protect them from the jostling of a road-race pack. Indeed, one of the reasons American women have fared better than American men in traditionally European sports like soccer and cycling is probably that they don’t have to travel abroad to find better competition. Walking across the street will usually do.
So there, we said it. Men run faster, jump higher, and hit harder than women. The dirty little secret is out. And to it we’d add a postscript: So?
McEnroe’s protest, and those of writers like Stephen Moore of the National Review, miss the point entirely. “The women tennis pros don’t really want equal pay for equal work. They want equal pay for inferior work,” Moore writes. “The day that Martina can return Pete’s serve is the day she should get paid what he does.”
But sports is not about pure performance. After all, a golden retriever can outrun Michael Johnson, and a squirrel can outleap Vince Carter. And for that matter, if sheer quality of play were the only criterion, why is America captivated by an NCAA basketball tourney filled with players who would get their clocks cleaned by a CBA squad?
Like it or not, spectator sports are entertainment, and by extension, an aesthetic pursuit. (And if anyone should understand that, it should be McEnroe, who was a consummate artist on the court and a gallery owner off it.) And therein lies the raison d’être of women’s sports. The reason for the skyrocketing popularity of women’s college basketball and the WNBA is that the women play a, pardon the expression, prettier game, one in which passing is more important than leaping. One might argue, in fact, that in terms of size, speed, and leaping ability, today’s elite female players are closer to what James Naismith envisioned when he first hung up those peach baskets.
And the grace gap dominates the judging sports, like gymnastics and figure skating, in which women are far more popular than men. Alexi Yagudin may be able to outleap Sarah Hughes, but no one cares.
The distinction is clearest in McEnroe’s own game. You don’t have to be a marketing genius to see why women’s pro tennis has become a crossover hit, while the men’s game continues to search for identity. The men may hit the ball harder, but the women hit the ball better. They play longer, more creative points, changing speed and pace, often choosing inventive angles over sheer power.
Beyond that, the backstory is better. The rivalry between the sisters and Martina Hingis is, despite its unfortunate racial overtones, a classic. Jennifer Capriati is TV-movie material all by herself. And the Williamses’ sister-vs.-sister rivalry has no parallel on the men’s side. So it’s hardly any wonder that last year’s Venus-vs.-Serena women’s final in the U.S. Open was the first tennis match broadcast in network prime time in 25 years. The first since King vs. Riggs, to be precise.