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Serena Williams has left an indelible mark on tennis

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Serena Williams is a cultural icon. Our co-host, A Martinez, spoke with The Atlantic's Jemele Hill. He began the conversation by asking about Williams' legacy on the tennis court.

JEMELE HILL: I think Serena's contribution to tennis, I mean, it's just such a broad spectrum. I mean, one, I think her game being one that was so power based, having such a dominant serve, the level of athleticism, you know, these are all elements that really changed how the game was played, and for that matter, not just allowed her to dominate, but allowed her to influence other athletes in terms of how they were constructing their own games. I mean, her ability to cover so much territory on the court, the power in which she not only served, but just that passion and that will that she always played with, I mean, she showed that - she never asked permission for exhibiting the same level of competitiveness, passion that we often laud male athletes for showing those same things. And so Serena brought a fierceness to tennis that while, you know, you would see it in pockets, but that really became, you know, kind of the undercurrent and lifeblood of the game.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

And I think that made her product, her tennis product, better on television, I think, than anyone else. I mean, she occupied every single part of that screen.

HILL: Yeah. I mean, she's been must see TV for a while. And even though, obviously, in the last couple of years, she hasn't been able to play as much because of injuries - and I think it's reasonable to say that she's probably been begrudgingly looking at this moment of having to finally walk away from the sport. But, you know, what she - she single-handedly has carried women's tennis for probably the last 20 years.

MARTINEZ: Is it fair to say that Serena brought her Blackness to a white sport, and that is one of her biggest accomplishments as well?

HILL: I think that's more than fair to say because the one thing among the many things that made Serena special is that during her rise, she never compromised her Blackness. She never changed for the sport. You know, she wore her hair beautifully and naturally, starting from the time when she had beads and she had braids. She didn't apologize for having a curvaceous body. She didn't apologize for the power she exhibited. And through her unapologetic way that she took over the sport, that was very inspirational, especially to the Black community.

And even as she was becoming this outstanding icon, she also used her voice at the same time to speak up and about Black issues. I mean, she spoke up when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed a day apart. She's been very vocal about the complications from her pregnancy because right now in America, as Serena knows and, certainly, again, brought to light, Black women are three times more likely than white women to die in childbirth. And she talked about racial disparities. So she's never shied away from speaking about these things and what she's experienced as a Black woman.

MARTINEZ: How do you think Serena Williams will deal with post-tennis life?

HILL: I'm very curious as to how this is going to go for her, because in her first-person essay where she announced that she was - excuse me, not retiring but evolving away from tennis. And the fact that she has a hard time even saying the word lets you know that this is difficult. And when you read her essay, it was very clear that she was torn. It's probably an intersection of her wanting to expand other areas of her life, specifically wanting to have more children, which she discussed, continuing to dive deeper in her businesses, but also realizing that her body's starting to betray her a little bit. She's going to be 41 years old in September. And it's really astounding she's played at the level she's played at for this long.

MARTINEZ: How do you think she deserves to be remembered? I mean, 23 Grand Slams, the Olympic medals. It just feels like, Jemele, calling her one of the all-time tennis greats or even just one of the all-time greatest athletes is just not enough.

HILL: No, you're absolutely right. And in fact, it feels confining to refer to her as the greatest female tennis player ever. It feels confining to call her one of the greatest athletes ever. It feels even confining to look at her and her sister, where they're from, what they became and call them one of the greatest American sports stories of all time. Those don't feel like it does it justice what we witnessed. I mean, for her to have really entrenched herself as a cultural icon - not just a sports icon, but as a cultural icon - for as long as she has, I don't know if we can ever properly celebrate her or properly put her legacy into definitive terms.

MARTINEZ: That's Jemele Hill, staff writer for The Atlantic. Jemele, thanks.

HILL: Thank you, appreciate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUMIPA BEATS' "IMPETUOSO (INSTRUMENTAL BEAT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.