Q&A: Entertainer Norm Lewis on his tennis influence
The versatile entertainer Norm Lewis—concert singer, Broadway theater veteran, and film and television actor—often exudes an effortless confidence and charm while performing. His first experiences in the public eye were not on stage however, but rather on the tennis court. Lewis, 58, spent much of his youth with a racquet in his hands, developing his game and playing in junior competition. This included tournaments run by the American Tennis Association (ATA), where he rubbed elbows with such budding talents as Zina Garrison and Rodney Harmon.
In recent years, Lewis is breaking barriers in his chosen path, becoming the first-ever Black actor cast in the title role on Broadway in "The Phantom of the Opera" in 2014. USTA.com recently caught up with him to talk about his early days playing tennis and how that influenced him as he prepares for “One Night Only: An Evening with Norm Lewis,” his solo concert debut at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops orchestra on March 4.
Q: You had very different aspirations as a young kid relative to your multifaceted career in show business. Where and when did your early involvement with tennis begin?
Norm Lewis: I grew up in Eatonville, Fla., which is actually the oldest Black chartered municipality in the United States. I was always good at team sports as a young kid...you know, kickball, softball, football. But I liked to play for fun. So when the bigger kids came around it became much more serious and I could NOT handle that. I would mess up sometimes…get called names and become discouraged.
Around the age of nine my next-door neighbor Tina McCall [Black Tennis Hall of Fame ‘20], a top-ranked tennis player in Florida at the time, introduced me to her mentor Denton Johnson. He was known as “Pop” and taught tennis to many of the kids in our community for free. He gave me a wooden racquet to play with and I just got out there and started hitting.
Q: And what was your first impression?
Norm Lewis: It was SO much fun. And I quickly realized tennis was something that was only on me. If I screwed up, I can only be mad at myself, or be embarrassed for myself. That resonated with me in a way that those other sports didn’t. In fact, I was now getting picked on for my dedication! Sometimes it would be really cold in Florida, where you had to wear a big coat, and no one else would come outside to play. So I would just hit against the wall by myself. I loved it. I ate, drank, slept tennis. When I wasn’t playing, I watched every match that I could find on television. I subscribed to Tennis magazine and Tennis U.S.A., and I could not wait to get them so I could take player pictures out and put them up on my wall.
Q: So, which players made it up on that wall?
Norm Lewis: Well, Bjorn Bjorg is my favorite tennis player ever. I loved Bjorg’s ability to move on from a bad point, to fully concentrate on the next ball. A combination of Bjorg and Arthur Ashe, THAT’s what I wanted to be. Arthur was greatness. His strength, his courage, his brilliance...but also how MUCH of a gentleman he was. I got a chance to shake Arthur’s hand at one of the ATA tournaments. I was just a little boy at that time but just knowing I got an opportunity to see him in person was awesome. He helped shape my personality and character. And of course, there was Chris Evert, Navratilova, McEnroe…but also Yannick Noah, Guillermo Vilas, Evonne Goolagong and Vitas Gerulaitis.
And I don’t think I put her on the wall but Tracy Austin really intrigued me because she was my age and already winning at 14. I remember how much I WISHED I could do that! I remember she had braces and I had braces (laughs). I would always watch her play on television, striving to become the “male Tracy.”
Q: How did your progress on the court?
Norm Lewis: Within a year of beginning I got good enough to play on Pop’s Summer Tennis League team, where the Eatonville neighborhood would play against other neighborhoods using pro set scoring. I was really enjoying it and was progressing quickly in part because of I emulated Tina. Many of us advanced to traveling around the state of Florida to compete and then we would caravan around the country to play in various tournaments, including those on the American Tennis Association tour. That’s where I got to know Rodney Harmon, Zina Garrison, Leslie Allen, Lori McNeil…so many talented players. It was wonderful to see this sea of Black people playing tennis.
Q: What was that experience like, navigating the tennis road in the 1970s while growing up?
Norm Lewis: We were kids playing other kids, having a great time playing tennis. I made a lot of friends…white, Black. I never saw myself as different from any other kids or experienced any tension back then. My group loved everybody and everybody loved us because we treated everyone the same.
But I remember my dad taking me to one tennis club in Tampa for a tournament, my mom was there as well, and as we were walking around, my dad just kind of stopped me and said “Son, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be allowed in here.” It was something that hit me, but I didn’t truly understand what that meant. I didn’t understand racism at that point, I had never really experienced what it was until a little later in my life. My sister and brother had, who are six and nine years older, along with Tina and other players. I think their time in the late 60s was harder than my generation’s time in the 70s. But I became a lot more sensitive to things after (my dad) said that.
Q: What were some elements of your game?
Norm Lewis: I had really good form, did everything technically by the book. I could hit the ball, stand square, round my shoulders, follow through, everything. I was using a Western grip for both the forehand and backhand, BUT, after a while, a couple of the older guys came over to me and said, “[Your grip] doesn’t look masculine and most men don’t play that way.” They influenced me to change my grip, but I will say, I was conscious of it from that point on and I never found the comfortability of which grip to use and I changed it a lot. I never went back to the old way I had used to learn how to play. And to this day, it’s something that has left an indelible mark in my mind through the years. I regret it. If I stayed with that grip, I feel my journey in tennis could have been different.
Q: When did you know performing would take priority over tennis?
Norm Lewis: Well…I unfortunately never won a tennis tournament. (Laughs). When the stakes were higher, when there was an expectation of winning…I would tense up. I became timid on big shots. I wish I had Bjorg’s concentration, that sort of mentality on the court, to let the past go…but I didn’t. I never lost doing my best and that wore on me. My love for playing started to wane somewhat.
Interestingly enough, that’s when I found a love for singing and performing. I had sang while growing up in church, but while in high school, people were giving me kudos and accolades in a way that I wasn’t really getting as a tennis player. It was making me a little more happy, a little more satisfied. I was building up confidence and overcoming insecurities. I think the universe was propelling me towards this direction. I was now 18, and I would’ve had to figure out a way to continue tennis on my own because Pop had younger developing players that he was already working with…it would’ve been expensive. The elite group already had their [tennis] scholarships. I didn’t quite cross that threshold. I just wasn’t good enough…I didn’t have the fight.
Q: You didn’t accomplish what you wanted on the court, but how did your tennis playing days help prepare you to go after your new goals?
Norm Lewis: They say tennis is 80% mental and 20% physical. I learned about the mental aspect of tennis, the mental agility involved. There’s a concentration you need for both worlds. For example, if things don’t go as well as I would like them to on stage, I’m able to concentrate on making the rest of the song or scene better. I’ve been in the middle of a show where I lost my voice and I still had to maintain my composure and sing in front of 1,200 people…a “show must go on” kind of situation. So, I ended up adopting Borg’s philosophy to “move on” after all. As for the physical, well, performing eight shows a week, and doing it front of people, there is certainly a relatable intensity.
Q: You’ve conquered many high-profile roles during your career, but becoming the first-ever Black “Phantom” on Broadway in 2014 was truly groundbreaking and caught the world’s attention. What was the journey like to get that opportunity?
Norm Lewis: I wasn’t sure if I could do [the Phantom]. That role is considered the pinnacle of male musical theater roles and I never had really heard anyone who had a voice like mine sing it. When I saw the show back in ‘94 I knew I loved it. I definitely didn’t know if they would ever [audition] me for it because the only Black person to play the Phantom was Robert Guillaume out in L.A. [in 1990]. He was a star and I was certainly not a star. So it became a dream role.
But after a while, my mindset changed. It wasn’t just an artistic endeavor of mine…I wanted to set a precedent. Why is there no one else Black playing this role? If you can sing it, you should get a chance.
As the years went on and my career was building and elevating, everything aligned for me to share this goal with the right people at the right place at the right time. I got the audition. While there, I remember feeling the souls of people who’ve passed and those still living who I admire, their voices telling me “Go get this.” A couple days later, they said, “Okay, you’re the one that we want.”
Q: Sounds like the stakes were high and you didn’t “tense up” this time around?
Norm Lewis: (Laughs). I went out there and did what I came to do…I did my very best. It’s a moment I won’t ever forget.
Q: We certainly covered off on your past involvement with the game. Where does the sport of tennis fit in with your busy schedule nowadays?
Norm Lewis: I try to keep up with all the new happenings as much as possible. Whenever tennis is on the television it’s on in my house. If not, I’m catching the highlights. I really enjoy coming out to the USTA Foundation fundraising events, they remind me of so many amazing young athletes from the past that could have dominated tennis with the proper resources to do it. Pop helped a lot of kids get scholarships so I can appreciate the importance of their efforts.
When it comes to playing tennis, I need to do better. I haven’t gone out and played consistently in a long time. I need to learn the modern game. Back in the 70s topspin was a novelty. You hit a flat ball. Now, you hit topspin and a flat ball is the novelty. This past summer and fall during the pandemic I went out to the Central Park and Upper West Side tennis courts just to watch everyone play. I will go on record to say I will get my [NYC] Parks and Rec tennis permit this season. I want to exercise more and the access is right there. It’s never too late to play, that is what’s really wonderful about tennis. Watch out senior league! (Laughs).