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John McEnroe, the tennis champion and sports commentator, famous for his on-court fits of temper and a mouth that charges ahead of his brain like an unsupervised child, was a guest Tuesday night on Stephen Colbert's "Late Show."
McEnroe has a new book to promote, "But Seriously," so that mouth has had many opportunities of late to run out into traffic. In an interview with NPR, on Sunday's "Weekend Edition," McEnroe seemed to demean the abilities of Serena Williams.
"You are known for your outbursts on the court," Colbert said, wasting no time. "People think of you as an outrageous character at times, but you have stirred the pot in a way that you rarely have in the past because this weekend you topped yourself."
"No," said McEnroe. Perhaps he meant that he had done worse.
"You topped yourself, sir," Colbert continued. "You told NPR that if Serena Williams were on the men's circuit, she'd be, like, number 700 in the world."
Boos from the house.
"It didn't go over big with my daughters, either." McEnroe said.
Laughs from the house.
It is possible that McEnroe actually believes there are 699 male tennis players who are better than Williams. (In an earlier interview with "CBS This Morning," McEnroe, 58, had hypothetically ranked himself "currently… about 1,200 in the world.") In any event, he didn't back away from the statement, only the saying of it.
"You cannot be serious," said Colbert, pulling out McEnroe's trademark line.
"Remember 'The Honeymooners'?" asked McEnroe. "Ralph Kramden? 'Me and my big moouuuuth.' It's a little bit like that."
Recounting the NPR interview, which can be heard here, McEnroe said, "I said Serena is the greatest female tennis player that ever lived. And I think she's absolutely tremendous."
Cheers from the house.
"And [the interviewer] followed up with, 'Why do you have to say female tennis player? Isn't she the greatest tennis player that ever lived?' And I said, 'Wait, hang on a second here.'...
"Do they say that about girl basketball players," McEnroe wondered rhetorically, "that they 're as good as Michael Jordan?"
"They might say 'women's basketball players,'" Colbert pointed out. "Instead of 'girl basketball players.'"
The host helpfully reminded his guest that after Wimbledon in 2015, he had called Williams "arguably the greatest athlete of the last 100 years."
"She's certainly one of the greatest athletes of the last 100 years," said McEnroe.
"'Arguably the greatest athlete...,'" Colbert repeated. "That was the lifeboat I was throwing — why'd you have to stab it with a knife? There are sharks in the water around you right now."
For all the teapot tempest, McEnroe did not mind playing the clown in this story. Much of the rest of the interviewer covered mostly his own failures as a talk-show host, briefly for CNBC in 2004 and the time he filled in as host for David Letterman — on the very same "Late Show."
That night he incurred the everlasting wrath of chef Eric Ripert ("I made some type of comment that the French hadn't backed us up after 9/11 very well," McEnroe conceded). The punchline was that, interviewed some years later, Ripert named McEnroe as the one person in the world he would refuse to serve.
As for McEnroe's new book, "We’re learning that I'm hopefully growing as a person, that I've been able to somewhat — although you wouldn't know it by yesterday — that I’ve tried … to look at the glass more half full, despite being ridiculed mercilessly on national TV at 12 at night."