Lendale Johnson's Unique Journey from Tennis to Acting, Modeling and Back

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2015

Lendale Johnson, middle, is flanked by Jim Courier and John McEnroe and Andy Roddick and James Blake at the PowerShares Series Tennis event.
Lendale Johnson, middle, is flanked by Jim Courier and John McEnroe and Andy Roddick and James Blake at the PowerShares Series Tennis event.Courtesy of Lendale Johnson

Lendale Johnson spent more than 20 years and countless hours training and practicing for a failed attempt at a professional tennis career.

Then earlier this year, the Fox hit television series Empire aired. Johnson had a non-speaking part as an extra in a yacht scene. Suddenly, Johnson started getting noticed and getting sponsors.  

A few seconds on television did more to advance his professional tennis career than a lifetime of hard work. 

In January 2016, while most of the tennis world will be focused on Australia, Johnson looks to Africa to relaunch his professional tennis career. He will play in Egypt in an ITF Futures Tour tournament.

"It's easier to get into a tournament in Africa as a U.S. player than it is to get in a small tournament here in the states," Johnson said. 

Returning to professional tennis at age 29 says much about Johnson's determination and dedication. It also speaks to the celebrity culture in this country, where working hard at a discipline for years yields far less fruit than a mere brush with celebrity. 

How odd. Immersing himself in the sport for years went largely unnoticed. Now, the pithiest proximity to stardom is financing his dream. 

Johnson is embracing this unique journey back to his first love. Like any professional player, he dreams of winning a Grand Slam. However, his struggle to finance his career is far more representative of the reality for thousands of professional players.  

Instead of hoisting trophies in front of a stadium full of cheering fans, most professional tennis players spend their career clinging to hope while running out of money. 

Aware of the increasing financial burdens faced by most professional tennis players, the ITF decided to increase prize money for Futures and Challengers Tours, beginning in January. 

Lendale Johnson (middle) works with area Chicago youth at a local event.
Lendale Johnson (middle) works with area Chicago youth at a local event.Courtesy Lendale Johnson

The extra money comes on the heels of an extensive survey conducted by the ITF in 2013. According to the survey, there were 8,874 male players on the pro circuit. Of those, 3,896 earned zero prize money.  

The average costs for playing professional tennis—including flights, accommodation, food, restringing, laundry, clothing, equipment and airport transfers but not including coaching costs—were $38,000 for male players and $40,180 for female players.

With the approximately $162 million distributed in 2013, that year the top 1 percent of male players—top 50—won 60 percent ($97,448,106) of the prize money. 

The ITF operates more than 600 Futures tournaments in 77 countries. Some have total purses of just $10,000 as opposed to the more than $42 million for the U.S. Open.

Turning pro in tennis is neither glamorous nor profitable for most players. It's closer to insane. 

Johnson never had much of a pro career. After high school, he played mostly tournaments near his hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, which has a strong tennis community. Then he decided to try the ITF Futures Tour. Attempts at playing full time, two to three tournaments per month, drove him into debt. 

Like many players, after a year or two of living in debt, Johnson decided he had to put his dreams on hold. He earned money as a teaching professional in the Chicago area and started the Lendale Johnson High Performance Tennis Academy. He took small modeling gigs. 

He continued to play tennis, but considered it too expensive to go back on tour. His last official ITF tournament in Vero Beach, Florida, in 2013 ended with him pulling out of the tournament, resulting in a walkover for his opponent. He said he was spending about $90,000 annually to stay on the tour. 

He ran out of money but never out of hope. 

One day, a friend, who was a professional model, told him about a casting call for extras in the new show Empire. They wanted attractive men for a particular scene. Johnson, who had done no prior acting, decided, why not?

He landed a part. He got to meet all the A-list actors, including Oscar-nominated stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. 

"I even met Lee Daniels [the director]. He spoke to me in front of everyone, by my first name, which was really awesome," Johnson said.

Nearly 10 million viewers watched the pilot.

"I was only in the show for a few seconds. But it was such a high-profile show everyone made a really big deal of me being in the movie even though I didn't have a speaking part. It was really exciting," said Johnson.

Johnson discovered that television, even if only a fleeting moment, is a powerful tool. With a second chance to pursue his dream, Johnson got to work trying to extract maximum mileage from the minimal exposure. 

He did as many television news interviews as he could. Events booked him as actor and model from the hit show Empire

Nibbling on what may seem like crumbs can keep a low-level player from going hungry. 

Johnson reached out to ImNext, a profile search directory for actors and athletes seeking exposure in sports and entertainment. 

So impressed with Johnson's ability to keep his name out there, ImNext decided to sponsor him. "We were honored to have someone who has already established himself in the tennis world interested in utilizing our services," said ImNext founder Glenn Doughty. "To date, we have contributed to his tennis needs in areas such as equipment, coaching fees and travel expenses to tournaments."

Without support from ImNext and other sponsors like Fila, Johnson said he couldn't afford to return to professional tennis. 

"I've always believed in my talent," he said. "I just didn't have the money." 

Johnson admirers players like Dustin Brown, journeymen who manage to have long successful careers mainly on the Challenger Tour. 

This year Brown competed in the IPTL alongside greats like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. 

"He's an inspiration," Johnson said of Brown. 

Johnson follows the blog of James McGee, an Irish tennis player who chronicles his struggles to finance his career.       

McGee posted a picture of a receipt he got for his winnings at the ATP Challenger Tournament this year. He received $344 for a first-round loss. 

The Irishman wrote: "I was handed a prize money receipt for $344 after losing early in the first round of my last event and realized that that wouldn’t even pay for my car rental for the week, never mind my food, flight and other expenses."

Australian player John Millman told the Deccan-Herald that "The majority of players feel like they're broke. It isn't just what we see on TV most of the time the glamour side, you forget the other side to it which is a struggle." 

Millman is ranked No. 92 and gets opportunities to play in Grand Slams. Meanwhile, Johnson has more modest goals. 

"I'm working on breaking through ... I'm working on qualifying into Challengers. Once I qualify for those then I can get more points so that I can play into ATP tournaments. But it does take a while."

Meanwhile, Johnson has scheduled public appearances in everything from local charity 5Ks to fashion shows.

Aware of the odds stacked against him, Johnson considers the courage to return to professional tennis a win. "I'm not sure what will happen," he said.

"I do know that if I play a certain amount of ITF tournaments and win those points, then that will allow me to get into the Challenger tournaments. Once you get into the Challenger tournaments, it gets much easier and anything can happen."  

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.