OK. So that's a little unfair.
This was not exactly an attack John McEnroe launched the other day on NPR, when he said Serena Williams would be ranked "like 700th in the world" if she played the men's tennis tour. It was more of a backhanded compliment, only without the compliment. Or rather, with plenty of compliments and then an entirely unnecessary qualifier.
He called her a terrific player.
He also couldn't resist adding the unspoken "for a woman."
Because, really, if you're praising a woman athlete to the skies and then adding that she wouldn't stand a chance if she played in a context in which she'll never play, it is a slap, even if it isn't intended as one (and, having heard the interview, I'm completely certain there was no such intent on McEnroe's part here). It's pointing out something that didn't need to be pointed out -- yes, male athletes and female athletes are different, and the sun rises in the East, and gravity is a thing. So why point it out at all, unless it's to fulfill some nameless instinct to devalue a woman's accomplishments?
Look. Serena Williams is never going to play on the men's tour. She's never expressed a desire to play men. So why this compulsion to bring up something that's not even a hypothetical? Why can't men in particular simply acknowledge that she's one of the greatest athletes in history -- certainly in my lifetime she is -- and let it go at that?
No man I know, for instance, ever attaches those kind of weights to his praise for a male athlete. You never hear him declare Michael Jordan the best basketball player of all time, and then qualify it by saying "Yeah, but he was lousy at baseball." You never hear anyone say Tiger Woods was the greatest golfer of his generation, but as a hurdler he wouldn't rank in the top 100 in the world.
That's because it's completely irrelevant, of course. And it's completely irrelevant because Tiger Woods never ran track and never expressed any desire to run track. So why do some consider it relevant -- even compulsory -- to speculate about something Serena Williams has never done or has ever aspired to do?
I think we know the answer to that. Don't we?