Michael Johnson explains why the legacy of Serena Williams will endure
Athletics legend Michael Johnson believes Serena Williams has left a legacy in sport that will endure after her emotional farewell at the US Open.
While the 23-time Grand Slam-winning great has hinted she could yet play again after some impressive performances in an event hailed as her final stand after a remarkable career, Johnson believes Serena has helped to change the perceptions of tennis forever.
The American bowed out of the third round of the US Open earlier this month after losing in three sets to Ajla Tomljanovic although she is not planning to “evolve” away from tennis.
That may yet mean we will see the tennis legend play again, but the tributes at the US Open highlighted the impact she has made in her career, with her final match drawing the biggest TV audience in US Open history.
Speaking to Tennis365 in an exclusive interview in his role as an ambassador for the Professional Triathletes Organisation, four-time Olympic gold-medalist Johnson saluted the contribution of Serena and her sister Venus.
“She has obviously been amazing in that sport, and for years,” began Johnson, who sprinted to gold in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games in a sensational manner that ensured he left his own lasting imprint in sporting folklore.
“I thought they did a fantastic job of just highlighting what she meant to women’s tennis and women’s sport. What she meant for young kids, young black kids who finally see an athlete that looks like them thriving in a sport that has not had much diversity and representation.
“So it was it was really amazing to see her go out with that celebration of what she meant to that sport.”
Johnson went on to suggest the story of Richard Williams pulling his girls from obscurity and transforming them into two of the biggest stars in the history of women’s sport is just as inspiring as the achievements of Serena and Venus on the court.
“He was amazing in his belief that his two young girls from Compton, California, could thrive and be the best in the world. Arguably some of the best they’ve ever seen in a sport that, traditionally, black people did not really participate in. There have been barriers to entry into that sport and the expense was another barrier.
“He believed and he was right. I think the confidence that he instilled and those two young girls to grow up and be authentically black and be authentically themselves (was impressive).
“That was one of the things for me that was really admirable about Serena. She never fell under the pressure to probably conform to what corporate America typically is looking for in a superstar athlete, a superstar tennis player.
“She decided to always be Serena and be herself and be a black woman unapologetically. She had the personal style and the style of play, the athleticism. Regardless of what anybody thought of her.
“It took a while throughout her long career for the sports media and corporate America to catch up and say, yeah, she’s not going away and she’s not to change who she is, and it is to be celebrated.
“Once you start to pay attention to it and appreciate it for what it is as opposed to filtering it through or putting it through the filter of what corporate America believes you are supposed to say, what you’re supposed to look like how you’re supposed to act or what you’re supposed to say or how you’re supposed to dress.
“I think they’ve done a great job of helping to highlight some of the inequities in tennis and the hypocrisy out there. When Andre Agassi was doing what he was doing in tenants or John McEnroe, it was celebrated.
“When Venus and Serena started to do it, it was all you’re not supposed to do that and do this or they’re different. So I think they highlighted that and made a great contribution in righting some of those wrongs.”
Johnson spoke to Tennis365 as he promoted the Professional Triathletes Organisation world tour, which is hosting the US Open this weekend.
The not-for-profit organisation is aiming to bring the best triathletes in the world together for events around the world, with a set-up similar to the world tennis tour. With big prize money and TV deals in place, the PTO are aiming to take triathlon to a whole new audience.
Double-Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee is among the star names taking part in this weekend’s PTO US Open men’s triathlon, with the action available to watch on Eurosport.
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