- Melissa Isaacson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Best known for his 17 Grand Slam titles and fiery personality, former world No. 1 and Hall of Fame member John McEnroe is a tennis analyst for ESPN, NBC, USA and the BBC. He recently sat down with espnW to talk about his views on the women's game.
espnW: How will women's tennis look after Serena Williams retires?
McEnroe: Generally speaking, the good news is that the playing field is more level in women's tennis than any other women's sports than maybe figure skating in the Olympics, where the women could be bigger than the men. Almost all the sports that I know, the women have a much better opportunity [in tennis] to feel they're on equal footing. And because of that, you see generally better athletes coming into the sport in the women's game than the men. So even though we're going to lose the greatest player I think that ever lived -- in my mind, there's no doubt about it -- there's going to be, hopefully others. ... But you're talking about two people, Venus included, where 10 years from now, people will say, 'Oh man, they really were the best ever.' You're not going to replace that. ... It's not like all of a sudden someone is going to come and be Serena Williams. That isn't going to happen.
espnW: Do the women need some compelling rivalries or one star to sustain interest?
McEnroe: You're going to need both. And hopefully there will be an American stepping up who we don't know yet. There are some good players out there. I grew up watching Dr. J and I was like, "Oh my God, this guy is the greatest basketball player I ever saw." And then there was that great rivalry with Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird. Then I saw Michael Jordan and I was, "Oh my God, Michael Jordan is better than Dr. J." And then you're like, "There's no way anyone can be better than Michael Jordan." And now there's LeBron, where there's an argument. Maybe he's as good or better. So in sports, inevitably, someone's going to come along. ... But Steffi Graf and Serena may be the two greatest female athletes in tennis ever, so it doesn't come along every day. Every 20 years, you might get one person. There might be someone as good as Venus once every 10 years.
espnW: How much interest did you have in the women's game when you played?
McEnroe: The reason I was interested was that one of my first girlfriends I ever went out with [Stacy Margolin] was a [professional] tennis player. And Mary Carillo and I grew up four blocks from each other and we were very close in our late teens, early 20s, so I was interested from that standpoint. ... It's not like I followed it the same way as the men but you're around a lot of the girl players and then you're always sort of keeping an eye on it.
espnW: And you won the French Open mixed doubles title with Carillo in 1977.
McEnroe: I also won with my girlfriend a couple times but it was way too much pressure, so I quit. We were in the '79 US Open, in the third or fourth round, and we played Stan Smith and Anne Smith and there were two breaks of serves. I lost my serve twice and I'm like, "How the hell did that happen? I'm never playing again." And I didn't play for 20 years until I played with Steffi here [in 1999].
espnW: Did having daughters change you and your view toward women's sports?
McEnroe: Quite a bit. With equal prize money, the opportunity given to young girls, the fact that they feel like the playing field is more level. We'd be sitting in the locker room when I played and be like, "Wait a minute, we play best-of-five, they play best-of-three." ... The biggest thing is, I have four girls and two boys and that definitely changed my thinking quite a bit. [The girls] didn't end up playing tennis, but I saw what it could mean, that they feel, "Hey man, we have a shot at this, too, and we can be a professional athlete." They're still battling this in other sports. In tennis, I don't listen to players now: "We play longer and better." Look man, you're just barking up the wrong tree now because we're actually setting a great example for a lot of people.