South Side Success: The story of Kamau Murray and Chicago's XS Tennis

by: Kamau Murray | September 20, 2018

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TenniStory: Kamau Murray

You may know Kamau Murray as the coach of Sloane Stephens, champion at last year's US Open and this year's Miami Open. What you may not know is that he is also the founder of XS Tennis, which helps Chicago's underserved youth through a community-based sports and academic enrichment program. This story, written by Murray, was originally published in 2015; since then, his connection to Chicago tennis has only intensified. Murray will be present at this weekend's Laver Cup, which will be hosted at the United Center, and he played a major role in bringing an Oracle Challenger tournament to the Windy City. That was only possible because, in 2015, XS Tennis broke ground on a $9.8-million tennis facility that provides students with access to the game and a pathway to higher education.

When I was presented with the opportunity to take over tennis operations at the club I grew up playing in, I had a full-time job and didn’t know if I was ready to give that up to go back and become a coach. But as I looked around, I could see that there was a void, and I felt there was something I could do. In the fall of 2008, I bought out the operator and turned those five courts into what is now XS Tennis.

Like a lot of people who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, I had dreams of becoming a basketball player. Little did I know that tennis would be the sport to change my life. When I was 7, my mom needed to find a way to occupy me during the summer break from school. We were driving by a public park where my godfather used to play tennis and saw some kids hitting balls. She pulled over and asked the man running the program how much it would cost to attend. He told her $12 for the rest of the summer. She looked directly at me and told me, “Get out of the car. Right now.” 

My mom dragged me to that camp kicking and screaming. This was in 1987, and I didn’t know much about tennis. I didn’t have a tennis racquet or playing clothes—I had to borrow hand-me-downs from my godfather. I was also worried about what the kids in the neighborhood might think if they saw me coming home with a tennis racquet under my arm. 

I was an athlete as a kid, but tennis was difficult to pick up. I wasn’t good, and the equipment was hard to handle—this was before smaller racquets and foam balls. But I made it through the summer and when school started back up that fall, my mom found a free tennis program sponsored by Chicago Public Schools. 

Both my parents worked when I was a kid. My father was an attorney and my mom was an assistant high school principal. Their schedules didn’t allow them to pick me up from class, so tennis became a convenient after-school activity. I played throughout high school and competed in USTA tournaments. In my senior year, I was offered a scholarship to Florida A&M University, where I captained the team for two years. I went on to earn my master’s degree while working as a graduate assistant coach. Tennis gave me the opportunity to earn two degrees at no cost. 

After I graduated, I went to work for a pharmaceutical company in New York. Eventually, I transferred back to Chicago and started coaching tennis to a few juniors on the side. We would practice in an operational armory with no heat in the middle of winter. There would be people shooting rifles and running HumVees with the smell of fuel in the air, and we would be there, hitting balls in winter hats. 

This was close to the time that I started XS Tennis. Over the past nine years, we’ve been working with five courts—not nearly enough space to service all of the kids we have in our program. We have always wanted to create a good home that could support the community and continue to grow. We knew we had a great model that more kids needed access to.

Up until January of this year, XS Tennis was my side job and I kept at it strictly for my love of the game. We ran into a lot of property issues, and from the very beginning, there was always a risk that we might have to relocate our organization. That instability made me seek out a more permanent solution—without it, our organization would struggle to survive and grow.

We worked with the city of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to secure 13 acres of land to build our new home base. We broke ground on the new home of XS Tennis this summer.

We currently have a partnership with our neighbors at the University of Chicago to provide tutoring and academic support for our students. We’ve also developed free in-school tennis programs for 2,000 CPS students every single week. Not only are we sending players to Division I schools on scholarship—this year we have kids going to Notre Dame, Northwestern, Indiana and Providence—we’re also putting the game in the hands of many kids who might not ever be exposed to it. 

The need for children in the South Side of Chicago to find a way to pay for college is tremendous. We’ve been able to assist with that. But we want to do more. Our goal is to expand our program to reach 4,000 local students in school and get at least 10 percent of those kids to come learn with us at our location. 

I’ve been told several times that our organization has transcended the South Side and we could easily make our home where tennis is more popular. My response is this: I want to make sure that services we provide are proximate to the kids who for far too long have been left out of tennis. Our goal is to put this game into the hands of as many kids as possible and provide them opportunities to get ahead. Keeping tennis in our community is great for our community.

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