Late last January, the world lost one of the most successful and influential athletes in history, Hank Aaron. His achievements on and off the baseball diamond are practically endless. Aaron, whose major-league career began in 1954, was a trailblazer during the Civil Rights Movement while simultaneously setting the all-time home run record that would go unbroken for 33 years. He is often compared to other game-changing athletes like Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe—Ali once said “ [Hank] is the only man I idolize more than myself”—though the latter comparison may be more fitting, as Aaron was both an avid tennis fan and recreational player.
After his baseball career, Aaron briefly tried his hand at softball, but after crushing 90+mph pitches for decades, he found that hitting “that big slow thing” wasn’t up his alley. But tennis was, and Aaron found solidarity with the most important aspect of tennis: mental toughness.
“I respect pro tennis players as much as any athletes for their conditioning and mental toughness,” Aaron said in an interview with former pro Scoop Malinowski.
Baseball may be America’s pastime, and one of the highest-paying sports in the world, but if you’ve ever watched or played the game, you know that is also entails a whole lot of sitting and standing around. Aaron found enjoyment in the constant involvement of tennis matches a nice change of pace after his 23 seasons of pro ball.
“Tennis is a game that makes you feel like you’re really playing something, I love every minute of it.”
Hank Aaron pictured alongside Frank Robinson, Alec Baldwin and Star Jones at the 2010 US Open (Getty Images)
It’s impossible to understand the challenges Aaron faced during his ascent to the top of the record books, from racist taunts to regular death threats. Many people did not want to see a Black man shatter an esteemed record. But if any active athletes can understand Aaron’s struggle, Serena Williams is one of them.
Aaron often thought of Serena, a Black woman in an overwhelmingly white sport, ascending the record books with every passing year.
“It takes me right back to what I had to deal with when I was chasing Babe Ruth's home run record, because I think the whole thing with Serena is so rude and so cruel,” Aaron said of Serena’s media portrayal after her famous game penalty against Naomi Osaka at the 2018 US Open.
"I spent 23 years in baseball, and then before I knew it, I was getting all of this hostile mail and all of that during my last couple of years, and with Serena, I started thinking about those things again,” Aaron said in a 2018 Forbes article.
“This kid has been playing all of these years, and I don't think she's ever been accused of cheating before it happened on Saturday.' And (tennis coaches), they all cheat, no matter how you look at it. They're sitting up there in the stands saying, 'Go this way. Do that.’”
Aaron clearly watched enough tennis to know that umpires typically turn a blind-eye to coaching, but not that day.
Aaron was not fond of the public's reaction to Serena's infamous game penalty at the 2018 US Open. (Getty Images)
"It just doesn't make any sense to me, really,” Aaron said. “I was going to write a letter to [WTA] officials to let them know how I feel about the whole thing."
When Serena learned of Aaron’s passing shortly after her first-round win at the 2021 Australian Open, she was left in disbelief, completely unaware that her chase for major No. 24, as well as her continuing fight for racial equality, weighed on Aaron’s mind.
"No way," Serena said in her post-match presser. "Wow. That's wild. That gives me chills. Oh, that's—I wish I could have done it when he was around. "Growing up, going to school and reading books about him and I never in a lifetime would have dreamt that I would have been on his mind. So that's really amazing.
"It was a great loss, it really was. I was so sad to see that happen. But his legend will live on, and yeah, many people will always know all the wonderful things he did for sport."
"Do you think Serena will get another one?" Aaron asked ESPN's Howard Bryant in a 2018 conversation he recently tweeted.
Whether Serena captures her elusive 24th Grand Slam doesn’t matter; her legacy is cemented. But if she does, Aaron will be rejoicing from the heavens. When it comes to tennis, the 25-time All Star’s forehand is a lot like his life.
“I have a tendency to hit it out of the ballpark.”