For a skinny former pharmaceutical sales rep who grew up on the south side of Chicago sharing hoops dreams with former NBA player Quentin Richardson, Kamau Murray has made quite a name for himself as a professional tennis coach.
Most notably, Murray is the coach of Sloane Stephens, whom he guided to a U.S. Open title in 2017. The following year, Stephens won the prestigious Miami Open and was runner up at the French Open with Murray in her corner
This past summer Murray came within an inch of adding a World Team Tennis title to his resume in his first year as a coach in the league. That was approximately how much of the baseline the ball clipped on the game-clinching point in the championship match between Murray’s Chicago Smash and the New York Empire.
More recently, Murray’s coaching acumen was on display as a Tennis Channel match commentator and analyst during WTA and ATP tournament play.
But if you were to ask this 40-year-old former Florida A&M University tennis standout what he is most proud of, he will tell you it is having helped dozens of youngsters get into college on tennis scholarships and the opening two years ago of his $16 million XS Tennis Village not far from where he grew up.
Murray’s academy serves as a sparkling example of what someone with vision, courage, conviction and the right connections can accomplish in an underserved urban community.
Situated on the 13-acre site where the Robert Taylor Homes public housing once stood, XS Tennis Village comprises 27 courts – 12 indoor and 15 outdoors, including four on clay – and a 116,000 square-foot building that houses classrooms and a 10,000 square-foot fitness center.
The academy serves about 3,000 mostly disadvantaged students a year through its after-school and summer programs, with free tutoring provided by volunteers from the University of Chicago, located about a mile away.
Through his XS Tennis program, Murray has helped nearly 50 young players land college scholarships at Division 1 schools. About half of those players came from low-income families.
Murray’s work with these young players has drawn widespread recognition and acclaim.
“I think his academy is outstanding,” said Bob Davis, founder of the Black Tennis Museum and CEO of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, who has spent a lifetime introducing tennis to kids in disadvantaged communities. “He’s walking the talk; providing major life-changing opportunities to urban kids. A man after my heart.”
Former United States Tennis Association President Katrina Adams told me she has been following Murray since he starred on the tennis team at Whitney Young Magnet High School, the same school she attended.
“Kamau’s success from working with grassroots players in Chicago to coaching a Grand Slam champion, Sloane Stephens, is remarkable,” Adams said in an email. “He is truly having an impact on the participants at XS tennis, getting them to believe in themselves and strive to be the best they can be, on and off the court.”
I first read about Murray and his effort to build a state-of-the-art tennis academy on Chicago’s south side four years ago in a magazine article headlined: “Can Kamau Murray Build the Next Serena?”
Ever since, I wanted to know how this brother was able to persuade backers to invest in such an ambitious undertaking in a community not particularly known for tennis.
I got a chance to find out during a recent interview that came out of the blue.
“It took a lot of relationships to get me in front of people who had the income and a philanthropic mind,” Murray told me.
Among his friends in high places was tennis legend Billie Jean King, whom Murray called on to vouch for him at a meeting with then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
But once he got face to face with potential benefactors, Murray had to provide more than just a vision. He pointed to results he had racked up since 2005 when he began teaching tennis to a handful of South Side kids in his spare time.
“There are not a lot of things in the black community that people will believe in without a long track record of success,” Murray said.
Here is what Emanuel told Chicago Magazine in 2016 about the city’s $2.9 million contribution and his own $5,000 donation to Murray’s venture: “Kamau has the data to back up the success of his program, but it’s even harder to say no to his sincerity and earnestness. This is a guy who could be making a healthy six figures doing something else, and yet he’s selflessly working on behalf of these kids.”
Murray’s goal is to have an academy that serves as a mecca for players from all over the world, while maintaining a primary commitment to the local community.
XS Tennis offers club memberships at $25 for children, $45 for adults and $85 for families. The hourly rate for lessons in the juniors academy is based on a sliding scale, starting at $80 an hour.
“I want XS to be a hub and safe haven, number one, for the Chicago community,” he said. “But I also want to create a place where black tennis players from across the world can come and get support.”
Murray’s journey to becoming an elite tennis coach began at age seven, when his mother enrolled him in a summer tennis program at a neighborhood park. When school resumed that fall, she found a free after-school tennis program to occupy his time.
By the time he got to high school, he said, it had become clear that he wasn’t going earn a college scholarship playing basketball, so he concentrated on tennis. In his senior year, he got his first coaching experience, as he was called upon to lead the team after the coach abruptly quit.
Murray was awarded a scholarship to Florida A&M University, where he starred in singles and doubles and captained the team for two years. After completing his undergraduate degree, he served as an assistant coach while working on an MBA.
Instead of pursuing a pro career, he went to work for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in New York City.
“I was real clear that I did not have what it took,” to make it on the ATP tour, he said.
In 2005, he transferred to his hometown and began giving lessons to a handful of kids on the South Side. One of them was Taylor Townsend, who went on to become the top-ranked junior in the world in 2012 and is now ranked No. 90 on the WTA tour.
Three years later, Murray founded the XS Tennis and Education Foundation and borrowed $90,000 from his parents — Leonard Murray, a Cook County judge; and Linda Murray, an assistant public school principal — to buy the facility where he had learned to play.
“It was definitely a risk on their part, but a calculated risk,” Murray said. He said he was able to repay his parents in six months.
When it came time to go asking for money to build XS Tennis Village, Murray said “people believed in me from a character perspective.”
Among his initial backers were Guggenheim Partners, the Lacoste clothing company and Northern Trust.
Still, Murray said, he had to address doubts there would be enough community interest to sustain a facility on the scale he was proposing. To those pessimists he pointed out that in the past 30 years the United States had produced just two top-ranked juniors in the world – Taylor Townsend and Donald Young Jr. – both black and from the south side of Chicago.
In addition, Murray said he knew the success of Venus and Serena Williams had sparked a groundswell of interest in the sport among blacks.
“I was building a facility for a community that would be inspired by” the Williams sisters, he said. He also reasoned, “If I was going to get African-American boys to put down a basketball and come to a tennis academy, it had to be the best.”
Just as his parents made an investment when they enrolled him in tennis, Murray said many of the black parents who come to XS Tennis are banking on their kids using tennis as a pathway toward a better life.
“It’s an investment, and our goal is to make sure we give them a return on that investment,” he told me.
“There are kids out there who want to play professional tennis but don’t know how tough it is,” he added. “I can give them some gentle reality check and help them get into college.”
Murray attributes the success he’s had with Sloane Stephens to working with the kids in his tennis program.
“One of the things that has made me a successful coach is having the experience of building players from scratch,” he said. “Teaching hundreds of five and 10-year-olds has prepared me to coach a professional player.”
It is a spirit of mentorship he said he learned from his mother who spent afternoons and weekends tutoring neighborhood kids in the basement and his dad, who once took 20 young black men from the Windy City to play basketball on a cultural exchange in Senegal.
Early in my conversation with Kamau, I began to think here was a genuine, unpretentious brother who was proud to represent his South Side roots in a sport that has been a late-bloomer in terms of diversity.
It is a character trait Katrina Adams finds particularly impressive about her home boy.
“I’m proud of Kamau for being his authentic self at all times,” she said, “remembering where he came from and understanding how he can help thousands of young people find their voice and talent in the sport of tennis,” Adams said.