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Tennis Coach Rudy Lewis: Build better players, build a stronger community

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By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times

When Rudy Lewis was coming up the sport to play was football, he was told.

“The people around me, like my dad, played football in high school,” said Lewis. “He felt I should play football in high school, and that’s what I did.”

Soon Lewis would learn about tennis and was pleasantly surprised.

“I found out it … was a sport that took a lot of footwork, a lot of running, and I said, … ‘You run more in tennis than you do in football.’”

Lewis is a coach at the George Ward Tennis Center in Glen Iris and recently guided the 12-and-Under (12U) Intermediate Team to the state championship in Auburn.

Rudy Lewis, president of the James Lewis Tennis Scholarship Foundation, is shown. The 12-and-under team from George Ward Park Tennis Center in July won the Alabama state championship and advanced to the regionals in Georgia. (Photo by Mark Almond)

“It’s a wonderful feeling,” he said. “That means that just like any other job, once you reach that level of play where you can be pretty much one of the better teams in the bracket, you know you’re doing the right thing … because of what the kids are doing for us in the matches.”

It’s also rewarding to watch the players grow.

“The satisfaction I get out of [everything I do] is looking at them mature, … [seeing] their self-esteem and their confidence grow,” said Lewis. “You can see it even in their schoolwork. … Sometimes we become [like] their fathers.”

Late Start

Lewis, 69, born and raised in New Orleans, La., has not been a lifelong tennis player.

“I didn’t start playing tennis until late in my life,” around his late 20s, early 30s, he said.

Lewis took up the game after a chance meeting with Nehemiah Atkinson, a teaching pro in New Orleans who is in the Louisiana Tennis Hall of Fame and the Southern Tennis Hall of Fame. Lewis rode the bus to work and would always see Atkinson get on the bus with his racket. He said one day that he was going to sit next to him and find out where he played tennis.

“One day it happened,” said Lewis. “I actually sat next to him and asked, ‘Do you play tennis a lot?’ He said, ‘Just a little bit.’”

Lewis said Atkinson played more than he coached, but “fortunately, [my wife, Margaret, and I] were able to get with him and have him coach us.”

“We started progressing fairly well with tennis and started to like it a lot more because we were able to hit the ball well. We thought it was something we could do together, grow together and practice in, and also have a workout at the same time,” said Lewis, who had two children at the time, a boy and a girl.

“Having two kids, you’re always looking for an outlet, a stress release,” he said.

The Lewises trained with Atkinson for about three years when he [Atkinson] was in town because he was still playing and competing at the time.

“The Right Sport”

The better Lewis became, the more he enjoyed the game.

“I was starting to actually be competitive and beat some players that had been playing a while, longer than me, and I said, ‘This feels like the right sport for me because now I’m … competing against players and beating them.’ That’s very satisfying,” he said.

Around 1976, Lewis began working with South Central Bell (now AT&T) in New Orleans. In 1987, he was transferred to the company’s headquarters in Birmingham—and he’s been here ever since.

Ensley Tennis Center

While in the Magic City, Lewis continued his tennis lessons at the YMCA in Mountain Brook (Sports First, at the time), where he heard about highly respected James “Buddy” Lewis (no relation) at the Ensley Tennis Center. In late 1988, Rudy Lewis went to see what lessons the Ensley coach offered and scheduled a lesson for the following week.

“We got out on the court, and I was dripping wet after about an hour and a half of lessons. … I approached Mr. Lewis, … pulled out my wallet, and asked, ‘How much do I owe you for the lesson?’ He said, ‘You don’t owe me anything.”

In addition to taking tennis lessons, Rudy Lewis began shadowing his Birmingham teacher.

“Sometimes he went to Miles College and gave lessons over there. He’d come back to Ensley Tennis Center and teach lessons there,” said Rudy Lewis. “I’d learn from him and meet people he coached. Sometimes I made arrangements to play against some of those people.”

Their relationship began in 1988 and lasted until 1995, when James Lewis passed away.

“He told us before he died that he wanted to have something for not only the adults but especially the kids, something that would be an extension of him to help the community,” said Lewis.

Improving Lives

Coach Rudy Lewis works with Allison Xie. The 12-and-under team from George Ward Park Tennis Center in July won the Alabama state championship and will advance to the regionals in Georgia. (Photo by Mark Almond)

Lewis remembered that his teacher taught tennis to children and adults for more than 30 years at no charge.

“He touched a lot of people in a special way,” Lewis said. “[He not only taught them tennis] but also improved the quality of their lives. If you needed a pair of shoes, he’d buy you a pair of shoes. If you needed a racket, he’d probably loan you one of his rackets. … He did things for people he met who needed help. He went beyond tennis.”

In honor of the coach, Lewis and several of other students decided to establish the James Lewis Tennis Scholarship Foundation Inc. (JLTSF) in 1995 and worked with kids and adults at the Ensley Tennis Center. In April 1998, the city changed the name of the center to the James Lewis Tennis Center, which is where most of the adults train; most of the younger students train at the George Ward Park Tennis Center, where they have been since 2006.

From 1999 until 2016, Rudy Lewis juggled the tennis center and his full-time job at Bell South (now AT&T); he retired from the latter in 2016.

What kept him going with coaching “was the kids, connecting with them in a special way, seeing them grow, seeing them evolve into competitive players. … When you see that look, you say, ‘I think I [coached] him [or her] in a special way.’ Then you look at what they are doing now, and you can see that they are really getting there.”

When the junior program first started at the Ensley Center in 1998, a lot of adults were playing at the James Lewis Tennis Center. The younger players needed more courts, so the JLTSF put in a bid for George Ward Park in 2006. Initially, the team couldn’t win, but two years later, “we became competitive.”

“We were able to hold our own and win some matches,” said Lewis. “We weren’t first place, … but we were able to win some matches, so that was very satisfying.”

Since 2006, the junior program at George Ward Park has grown to about 60 students.

Keys to Success

Lewis attributes the success of the program to the coaching staff in place, teachers certified through the Professional Tennis Registry (PTR), an organization that looks at a person’s overall skill. There are five instructors, and all but one is certified.

Practice is another key, Lewis said. The team practices from February through December. Even though they don’t practice in January because of the cold weather, private lessons are offered during the month.

A Family Game

Lewis and his wife don’t play together like they used to, but she still plays with Ladies’ League Tennis

“She enjoys playing with the ladies,” he said.

Their son and daughter also took up the sport; his son played tennis at Xavier University, Lewis’s alma mater (he graduated in 1971 with a degree in business administration and a minor in accounting). Lewis also has two sisters, one who was deeply into tennis at a point in her life after seeing her brother’s love for the sport: “She always wanted to beat me,” Lewis said.

The most important thing Rudy Lewis learned from his mentor James Lewis is that giving back and helping students learn makes them better people.

“Making them better means the community as a whole is progressing,” Lewis said. “If we can move as a whole together, that’s really good.”

For more information, contact the James Lewis Tennis Center at 205-209-0783 or the George Ward Tennis Center at 205-322-8745.

To read more local sports stories, click one of the links below.

Meet Birmingham’s 12U State Champion Tennis Team

Area’s Jamiya Ivory, 14, Ranked Among Tennis’s Best in Alabama

Titusville Knights, 10U National Baseball Champion: Undefeated, Unforgettable