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John McEnroe ranks Serena Williams way low among male tennis players — and pays big for the slight

Tennis legend John McEnroe came face to face Tuesday with a trio of "CBS Good Morning" hosts who seemed dead set on forcing him to apologize to Serena Williams for ranking her quite low among today's male players. (Image source: YouTube screenshot)

Tennis icon John McEnroe appears to have relocated his controversial persona.

Known in his playing days as much for his cantankerous dustups with officials — "You cannot be serious!" — as for his remarkable skills on the court, the 58-year-old has found himself in some hot water over comments he made in an NPR interview about tennis champion Serena Williams.

The interviewer brought up Williams to McEnroe, noting he previously said she's the "best female player in the world" — and McEnroe didn't change his opinion: "Best female player ever — no question."

But the interviewer argued that "some would say she's the best player in the world. Why qualify it?" McEnroe countered that if Williams played in the men's circuit "she'd be like 700 in the world."

Once the story hit, the knives came out. Of note particularly was McEnroe's appearance on "CBS This Morning" Tuesday in front of a trio of hosts seemingly dead set on forcing the tennis legend to apologize for his politically incorrect assessment.

Co-host Norah O'Donnell asked McEnroe if he'd like to say he's sorry for ranking Williams so low.

McEnroe's reply? "Uh, no." (Well, that was his answer at first.)

Co-host Gayle King followed up saying she believes McEnroe's statement "sort of belittles what women do on the tennis court" and later came back with, "No apology to Serena, really?"

McEnroe answered, "Listen, I would be happy to apologize to Serena, Gayle, if that makes you feel better ... I think Serena's incredible." Whether that qualifies as an apology is up for debate.

McEnroe told the hosts — which included Charlie Rose — that the debate about men and women and who's better at tennis could be figured out if a major shift occurred in the game.

"Why don't you combine ... I'm sure the men would be all for this — the men and women play together and then we don't have to guess," he told the hosts.

As for Williams' reaction to the whole thing, she took to Twitter on Monday and spelled things out to McEnroe in no uncertain terms:

"Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based," Williams wrote.

"I've never played anyone ranked 'there' nor do I have time. Respect me and my privacy as I'm trying to have a baby. Good day sir," she added in another tweet.

McEnroe seemed somewhat incredulous over the controversy his statements caused.

"I don't want anything to go wrong with Serena because she's pregnant," he told the hosts. "I don't want to upset her or whatever it was. She's — I think she was doing it tongue-in-cheek as well. And I think that deep down we're talking about something — I can't even believe we're talking about it."

At one point McEnroe said he'd rank himself at 1,200 in the world if he were still playing at his age — noting not insignificantly the caveat that men play five sets maximum (women play three maximum). But he later offered his take on the best-ever players — and placed Williams at No. 5.

"Are you happy now?" McEnroe asked Rose with a smirk.

"Yes, I am," Rose replied, laughing. King echoed the sentiment.

Here's the full interview:

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