In addition to his first-hand knowledge of tennis, John McEnroe has the gift of the gab, otherwise known as a big (or motor) mouth. This he has parlayed into a successful career as tennis commentator.
For my money, he is the best there is, although a part of me misses our dear old Dan Maskell. Who can forget his long silences interspersed with the occasional “I say” and “A rather immature shot, that”?
McEnroe’s style is more effusive, reflecting his temperament and American Irishness. He talks a lot, which loquacity sometimes gets him in trouble. As it has this time.
But first, let’s set the backdrop to the story.
Emma Raducanu is an 18-year-old British tennis player ranked somewhere in the 300s. Her ancestry is typical of female British players.
She was born in Canada to a Romanian father and Chinese mother. The family moved to London when Emma was two, and she took up tennis soon thereafter.
Though she grew up in England, Emma pays homage to her eclectic heritage by claiming a fondness for Romanian food and Taiwanese TV series. Yet she never mentions ice hockey, leaving Canadians wondering where they went wrong.
This year Emma got a wild card into Wimbledon and used it brilliantly: she got to the fourth round, which is rare for someone playing only her second professional tournament.
Her achievement instantly served a useful reminder that professional sport seldom brings out the best in human nature. Thus, every time a fly-by-night sports star rises, our papers burst with hysterical enthusiasm liberally tinged with faux patriotism.
Emma, they said this time, is well on her way to making millions in endorsement contracts. The papers may well be right. She has everything going for her: solid game, good looks, effervescence, background that screams diversity. Did we say millions? Make it billions, especially if she gets into the quarters.
Boris Johnson sent little Emma a message saying the whole country was behind her, even though most of the country didn’t have a clue who she was. Quarters? That’s setting our sights way too low. She’s going to win the whole tournament, and then it’s “Arise, Dame Emma”.
She didn’t win the whole tournament, nor even the fourth round. Playing on a show court for the first time in her life, and carrying the weight of the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on her slender shoulders, Emma dropped a close first set.
The poor girl then hyperventilated in the middle of the second. Experiencing dizziness and difficulty breathing, she had to quit after a medical timeout. Emma was then accompanied to the exit, holding her stomach and barely acknowledging the tumultuous ovation.
And then Mac got in trouble. I’ll quote his statement in full for you to figure out what was so offensive about it:
“I feel bad for Emma, I mean obviously it got – it appears it got a bit too much, as is understandable…
“How much can players handle? It makes you look at the guys that have been around and the girls for so long, how well they can handle it.
“These guys that can keep their composure and the girls out there are absolutely amazing – so we have to appreciate the players that are able to do it so well and hopefully she will learn from this experience.”
This sounds like a sympathetic comment by a man who knows what it takes to play on Centre Court for the first time. Mac was Emma’s age when he made it to the Wimbledon semis, and he knows that mental strength is as essential to success as a big serve and an armour-piercing forehand.
Not the most insightful or original of comments, I’d say, but how was it offensive? I mean, Mac didn’t say the trouble with Emma was that she was a girl, and a Sino-Romanian one to boot. He didn’t even suggest she must have been having her period or suffering from PMT.
Had he said anything along those lines, public decapitation would have been the only fit punishment, everyone is in agreement on that. But he didn’t, so where’s the problem?
If you have to ask, you must have been living on some faraway planet outside our galaxy. Here on Planet Earth, any comment about a woman is borderline criminal if it falls short of describing her as a giant able to lead a bayonet charge over the top against a machinegun encasement.
The social media screamed with demands that McEnroe be summarily sacked, and the messages highlighted in all caps words like DISGUSTING and REVOLTING.
Harriet Minter, a London hack who specialises in such vital areas as women’s rights and general diversity, wrote: “Is there anything more annoying than a man telling a woman she’s not hurt she’s just emotional? No, no there isn’t. Please ask him to stop.”
Er, let me think. Is there? Actually, there is, and I’d be happy to give Harriet a long list of worse annoyances, with her close to the top. No, not a good idea. If I did that, I’d probably have my collar felt.
Chloe Hubbard, the executive editor of The Independent, a paper only marginally to the right of the Pravda of my youth, added practical advice to scathing criticism: “Feel like the producers could have given McEnroe a bit of a better mental health briefing ahead of him sharing ALL the views there.”
One wonders what such a briefing would contain. I got it: “John, you can talk about men’s mental pressures to your heart’s content, but when it comes to women, keep your big mouth shut.”
The gist is that women aren’t just as sturdy as men – they are much, infinitely, more so. Every woman, even a very young one, is a superwoman impervious to the same pressures that can paralyse all those male wimps. Hyperventilation? You say that H-word again, and…
Emma herself interrupted this imaginary monologue by posting a message in which she implicitly exonerated Mac from his slanderous comment about pressure having got to her. “I was playing the best tennis of my life in front of an amazing crowd this week and I think the whole experience caught up with me.”
The upshot? The message is clear enough, reminiscent of Miranda Rights: “You have the right to remain silent, but anything you say about women can and will be used against you in a court of public opinion – if not one of law.”
Let me tell you, the list of things one can’t say is getting longer than in the Soviet Union, circa 1970. You know, the totalitarian state known in some quarters as the ‘Empire of Evil’?