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Gay tennis player Lendale Johnson urges top players to speak out against homophobia

"If it was really talked about more and acknowledged... I think a lot more players will be able to come out," Johnson tells the Attitude April Style issue.

By Will Stroude

Tennis player Lendale Johnson has urged players at the top of the game to do more to tackle homophobia in the sport.

The 34-year-old American, who has played professionally on the men’s ITF circuit – the tier of tournaments below the top-level ATP tour – is the first out gay male player to play on tour since the sport turned professional in 1968.

Appearing in the Attitude April Style issue – out now to download and to order globally – Johnson insists that homophobia “absolutely” remains an issue in men’s tennis despite its reputation as a “gentleman’s sport”.

Lendale Johnson serves up his thoughts on homophobia in tennis in the Attitude April Style issue, out now (Photography: Laura Barisonzi)

“When you really think about it, people are going to say things behind closed doors, whether you like it or not. I believe there is homophobia in every sport,” he says.

“And I feel like that’s mainly because the people that are in the sport just aren’t educated enough, or they’re ignorant and they made a decision to hate gay people. And that’s really sad.”

While there have been many out and proud stars in the women’s game over the years, including Grand Slam champions Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, the only male player from the upper echelons of the men’s game to come out publicly has been former world number 57 Brian Vahaly, who spoke about his sexuality for the first time in 2017, a decade after retiring from the game.

Johnson says that male stars at the top of the game must do more to speak out against homophobia and help foster an environment where gay male players feel comfortable coming out publicly.

“I just feel like if it was really talked about more and acknowledged by the top players — which it has been, but not as much as it should be — then I think a lot more players will be able to come out”, he says.

Photography: Laura Barisonzi

“I mean, there’s a lot of players on tour, well over a thousand players, the numbers are there — obviously, there’s going to be several players that are gay, but they’re choosing not to come out.

“That’s their own decision, but personally, I feel like coming out has really enhanced my quality of life in more ways than not.”

In recent years, there have been frequent calls for the Australian Open to rename the Margaret Court Arena in response to 24-time Grand Slam champion and evangelical Christian Court’s history of homophobic remarks.

Johnson says he “absolutely” backs calls for the arena’s name to be changed and dismisses Court’s all-time Grand Slam singles title record, which includes titles won before the Open Era began and which Serena Williams has been close to tying ever since winning her 23rd Grand Slam title in 2017.

Photography: Laura Barisonzi

“It’s really sad that there’s someone who is really in the upper echelons of our sport having that type of mindset on sexuality,” Johnson says of Court, 78. 

“Her as a competitor? She only won all those Grand Slam titles when tennis was literally in its lowest competitive era, when there really wasn’t any competition.

“I’m not afraid of saying that in public — that’s facts.”

Read the full interview in the Attitude April Style issue, out now to download and to order globally.

Subscribe in print and get your first three issues for just £1 each, or digitally for just over £1.50 per issue.