Some would say that Lendale Johnson has accomplished enough in being one of only two male openly gay professional tennis players. ( Johnson's part of the International Tennis Federation. It is separate from the Association of Tennis Professionalswhich has figures such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovicbut has thousands of players, nonetheless. )
However, the Chicago native is also an actor, model, reality-show figure ( with his upcoming Deuces and Love ) and director of The Johnson High Performance Tennis Academy ( which has a branches in the Windy City, New York City and New Jersey ).
Windy City Times: How are you doing with this pandemic living?
Lendale Johnson: It's been pretty challenging, emotionally. It's not just because of the Black Lives Matter movement, although just being a Black man during these times is difficult. The tennis academy has been really hot now, so that's good; everyone's keen to get outside and get fit.
Things are okay, but they could be better, obviously. I've had some pretty big heartbreaks this year. I've had some friends and family members who've passed away; there's been so much death this year.
WCT: So much has happened, and we still have an election to go. Could you give the readers a little background about yourself? I know you were born in Kalamazoo [Michigan], but I don't know if you grew up there as well, even though you were also in Chicago.
LJ: It was, like, half-Kalamazoo and half-Chicago. My family's from Chicago, and I feel like Chicago was [pivotal] for a lot of things, such as tennis. I got my first cover and my first acting gig [an appearance on the TV show Empire] in Chicago. That city has been a foundation for my success, and New York City has helped even more.
With Empire, I had a huge interview on Fox News. People recognized me in public; I couldn't take the subway for a while. [Laughs] People would say, "Hey, Empire!"
WCT: What are your thoughts about the U.S. Open tennis tournamentabout how it went, Djokovic [who was disqualified for accidentally hitting a line judge with a tennis ball], etc.?
LJ: Regarding them making it safe for players, I thought it was great. However, I don't agree with some things that happened. There was some controversy about Novak, but I think they threw him under the bus. I think if it had been Roger Federer, they would not have done that. Let's be real: A lot of people don't like Novak because he's been beating their favorite players.
Also, Novak and [player Vasek] Pospisil and other players are trying to form their own group [the Professional Tennis Players Association]. Tennis players get [a low] percent of what's made off the top; the rest goes to organizers and others. Players are sick of it; you really don't make much money unless you break into the top 500. The top players get a check for just being in a tournament; some people don't know that.
So I think because of that, people went after Novak. Maybe he could've gotten a game taken away or a gotten a warning. But the other players got an opportunity, and there's an extra $6 million put in the prize-money pool. That's awesome. [Laughs]
WCT: Why do you think more male tennis players have not come out?
LJ: I really feel like it's an American issue, a little bit. Being gay is taboo in the sports world. In individual sports, especially, it's really tough. If it's like the NBA or NFL, I think there would be at least a few teammates who say, "I support you."
There's also internalized homophobia within the systemdecision-makers and organizers. All of that happens behind closed doors, and you don't know what happens. Sponsorship makes and breaks you, and there are ratings to think about. That's a realityand I think it's a bigger issue on the men's side. You're supposed to be manly and not cry.
WCT: I think if a top-ranked player came out, others would followdepending on the feedback that person gets.
LJ: You think? You have to think about the history of tennis. Coming out is a huge issue, still. There's a lot of homophobia in the world, especially in America. Leaving sexuality out of the equation, if they're successful, there might not be an option to judge them. Martina Navratilova was successful but didn't come out until years later, and the same thing with Billie Jean King. [Note: King and Navratilova individually came out in 1981. King played 1959-90, and Navratilova played 1975-2006.] I did get a letter from Martina, and that was pretty exciting.
WCT: Who was the first person you came out to?
LJ: I would say my hitting person. In tennis, [sexuality is] not really something you discuss. And players are very private, unless they're good friends on tour. We don't make friends on tour; it can be very lonely. The top players play each other so much that they can become good friends off the court, though.
WCT: I did see that you wrote about how your mother reacted when you came out to her.
LJ: That she slapped me? Yeahthat definitely shocked me. I ran away from home and lived with my godmother. It was so weird.
WCT: What would you advice be to a younger person who's struggling with his/her/their sexuality?
LJ: I'd say to make sure you have at least one best friend. Find someone you can trust enough to share with. It's ultimately about being comfortable you feel with yourself. You'll be in a better mental state, and that could reduce the number of LGBTQ suicides. I think suicides happen because people feel so alone and that their lives aren't worth living. Having support people and support groups is so important.
Number two, you really need to see what's going on financiallyif you can live alone. You never know how your parents will react. Assess how independently you can live.
WCT: Lastly, I want to talk about Deuces and Loveand I caught the tennis connection with the title, by the way. [Johnson laughs.]
LJ: People have been asking so much about the title. In tennis, "deuce" means you've struggledyou never want to be at deuce. So it's about the struggles I go through life, and the struggles people who appear are going through. There will be a lot of LGBTQ icons on the show.
"Love" is about doing things I and other people love to doand things that benefit the world.
The premiere was Aug. 24, but has been delayed because of the pandemic. We've been outsourcing a new production crew. I think we are looking at October [to start]. Billy Porter won't be free until then, and we really want him on there. We're going to release one episode a week, as opposed to releasing the whole season at once.
Find out more about Johnson at LendaleJohnson.com .