He coached Sloane Stephens to a US Open title, but Kamau Murray’s big goal is a youth tennis center in Chicago
He’s creating a pipeline of black tennis talent
CHICAGO — Armed with youthful looks and a broad smile, Kamau Murray is an unusual mixture for a tennis coach: He has a brash competitive streak that can serve an elite athlete well, but also a sense of mission that rivals the most dedicated social justice warrior.
Murray, 37, is best known for helping propel Sloane Stephens to an out-of-nowhere victory at the US Open last September. But besides coaching Stephens on the pro circuit, Murray has an even more significant item on his agenda: completing his years-long effort to turn a plot of land on his hometown’s beleaguered South Side into the center of the youth tennis universe.
This summer, Murray officially will launch a $16.9 million tennis village, an ambitious project that, if he has his way, will alter the course of any number of young black lives in Chicago and beyond.
Players began training on the site in January, and it should be fully operational in early March. A grand opening scheduled for July is expected to draw major figures in tennis.
“To have this on the South Side, it’s just going to be terrific,” gushed tennis legend Billie Jean King, who, at 76, remains a vibrant social activist and one of Murray’s most ardent supporters. “I believed in Kamau from the start. He’s such a great role model for those kids, and he understands that things often come down to access. So many kids don’t have the access just because of where they were born and the circumstances they were born into. Kamau is out to change that. He’s truly one of the great people I’ve met in my life.”
Murray’s involvement in coaching dates to his own youth on the South Side. He was a star player at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and became the de facto coach of his team in his senior year when the head coach quit. He won a scholarship to Florida A&M University and, in exchange for a graduate school education in finance, worked as an assistant coach on the college team. After graduating, he lasted three months as a pro before realizing he didn’t have all that it took to earn a living on the pro circuit.
By 2005, Murray had returned to Chicago. A restless pharmaceutical rep for Pfizer, he started coaching kids in the evenings on the South Side. A few years later, one of his students, Taylor Townsend, ascended the junior ranks as a teen and turned pro. She and Murray parted ways a few years ago, and her pro career hasn’t taken flight as many predicted. Still, she’s only 21 and is ranked 97th in the world in singles.
Townsend’s success gave Murray credibility and contacts in national tennis circles, although he had already built a solid reputation in the Chicago area. In 2008, he bought out the only tennis program on the South Side for $90,000 (mostly borrowed from his father) and renamed it XS Tennis. Working out of a building in the Hyde Park neighborhood that had previously housed a Bally’s fitness center, his players started rising in state and national rankings and earning college scholarships.
Most of his players come from the South Side, an area not exactly world-renowned as a tennis hotbed. When these neighborhoods get national attention, it’s typically for socioeconomic ills: gun violence, poverty, racial isolation. So when his students were successful, his reputation blossomed. Soon, kids were coming from all around the Chicago region to train with him.
“My minority students were beating these entitled white kids in tournaments and suddenly the white kids are asking, ‘Hey, who’s your coach? Will he train with me?’ ” Murray said.
Murray and his coaching staff have worked with more than 2,000 kids individually and through camps and groups. For individual lessons, he charges up to $80 an hour and offers a sliding scale based on income. Some children pay nothing.
His goal with each student is threefold: to keep them safe in his facility, to help them grow and to help them win. What it takes to reach the last goal can cause consternation in some players and their parents. Murray can be an exacting instructor, pushing some of his talented players to the brink of exhaustion, physically and mentally. A few have left him, but others take on Murray’s fiery nature and compete for his attention and approval — mostly by winning tournaments.
When I met with Murray recently, it was clear that he was working to soften his edges. His language was a little less coarse, his words and demeanor more measured than in previous interviews we’ve had over the past several years.
But this softer pose lasted less than an hour. As we were chatting at his previous XS facility, Murray noticed one of his suburban students letting her temper take control. While practicing with another coach, the teen had slammed her racket into the court after hitting a rather easy forehand into the net. Murray could not let the girl’s outburst go without a response. He scurried down to the court and delivered a sermon, the type of speech his longtime students know well.
Folding his arms and standing in the opponent’s court, he began by asking why she was so upset over one shot — and he laced the question with a choice expletive. She replied that it was an easy shot and one she shouldn’t have missed.
“OK, you’ve missed how many shots today, in practice, so why did that one set you off?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, “That one miss in practice, or a dozen misses in practice, won’t lose you a tourney. But the negative energy you’re now carrying about that miss will bring more negative energy and will cost you a tournament.
“You have to learn that this is not a sport for perfectionists,” he said. “You are too smart to be that person who misses one shot, loses focus and then loses the next five games. You have to be the person who misses and then makes the quickest correction of what caused that miss. Stay in a positive zone. Don’t go negative.”
As he bounded the steps back toward me, he stopped by the girl’s father, who was watching the lesson. “I will give her any amount of money for her to go home and look up the pro match where there were zero unforced errors. Even the pros can’t do that, so she can’t, for sure. Tell her that on the way out.”
Murray makes no apologies for his acerbic speeches.
“Kids who drive past richer places … come for a little bit more intensity. They are not there for me to stroke their ego or pat them on the back,” he said. “When they walk into that building, everybody is fair game. I don’t care if you are a scholarship kid or a rich kid, your parents drove 15 minutes extra so I could get you, so I am gonna get you.”
Murray grew up as one of four siblings in an athletic household. His mother was a Chicago Public Schools educator and his father was an attorney and Cook County judge. His father played several sports in high school and was a college basketball player. Each of the four siblings won athletic scholarships to college. But people close to Murray attribute his passion for assisting less privileged children to his mother.
“Our parents believed in us,” said Murray’s older brother, Malik, a Chicago investment banker who played basketball for DePaul University. “He was a student of my mother’s, really. She challenged Kamau, and all of us, to dream, to rise above ourselves, to believe that anything was possible.”
Murray’s mission now is to instill that desire to achieve greatness in his tennis students. His palatial tennis and sports estate is anchored by a building that holds 16 indoor full-size tennis courts, with another 16 outside (four of them clay). The building also has a gym and basketball court, classrooms for academic tutoring, and a fitness center.
The optics are undeniable: The village was built over the past two years on 13.5 acres of land that previously held a portion of the Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public housing project in the country and one that was notorious for drugs, gangs and tragic childhoods. XS purchased the land from the city and Murray learned how hard it is to pull off such a big development project. He worked donors for more and more cash and jumped through an array of political hoops to get the project greenlighted and completed. His center was originally scheduled to open in 2016, but various obstacles delayed it. One delay involved additional excavation after builders found troves of personal belongings buried in the earth where one of the housing structures had been demolished.
Murray and his financial backers, who include King and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel (who contributed both personally and with city funds) and dozens of others, hope the facility will spur economic development in the area and serve as a sanctuary for young athletes, many who come from troubled homes. His tennis program offers free or reduced pricing for students in financial need and the University of Chicago provides free academic tutoring.
King serves as an adviser to the nonprofit XS Tennis board of directors. Murray’s ability to sell his vision to people of influence like her, and to court wealthy donors, is nearly as powerful as his coaching prowess.
King said Murray’s habit of putting kids of all economic levels and demographic groups on the same court for lessons is pure brilliance. Each has a way of pushing the other, especially the players who come from modest means and see tennis as their path to college. Some, like Zoe Spence, broke racial barriers. Spence, now a college sophomore, is the first African-American woman to gain a full-ride tennis scholarship to Notre Dame University.
Murray is definitely out to change young lives. “Some of my minority kids, they just need one opportunity, to see some kind of light in all the darkness,” he said. So far, his program has sent nearly 40 players to college with scholarships.
And he’s not shy about how much more he thinks he can accomplish once his village is fully functioning and gains more attention — he wants Chicago to be known as a tennis mecca alongside training facilities in the South and West. He wants to draw youth tournaments and players from around the country to the South Side. He noted that three of the four finalists at the 2017 US Open were African-American.
“In the past 30 years, there have only been two American kids be No. 1 in the world” in the junior ranks, he said. “One was Donald Young [who turned pro in 2004], and the other was Taylor Townsend, both from the South Side. So I would say, in the U.S., where is your white kid from Florida who has been No. 1 in the world at 16?
“The first thing I have to do, then, is educate people about that history, when they say that the headquarters of tennis should be in Florida or California. Here in Chicago, whether it’s North Side, South Side, West Side, wherever, we breed tough individuals. So if you look for kids who are resilient and tough, you look and see kids like that. So if American tennis is going to grow and thrive, it’s going to grow in places like Chicago.”
Murray’s work on the South Side is partially what sold Stephens on him in 2016. Stephens grew up primarily in California. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler, and she lived with her mother. Her father, former New England Patriots running back John Stephens, led a troubled post-NFL existence before dying in an accident on a rural stretch of Louisiana highway in 2009.
Still, Stephens never faced the same problems that some of Murray’s students have. Stephens has visited his Chicago facility, and mixing with less advantaged kids brings her own gifts and good fortune into sharper view, said her mother.
“One of the most powerful components of their relationship is that Sloane admires and respects what Kamau does in Chicago,” Sybil Smith said. “And for Kamau, I think he realizes that Sloane needs not only a coach so that she can continue to develop but she needs mentoring. Finding that balance is challenging for any coach. It was a perfect storm for Kamau and Sloane. His junior program gave him the right skill set for her.”
While Murray helped prepare Stephens to win the US Open, they have been less successful since then. She hasn’t won a match since the Open in September, and she fell in the first round at the Australian Open in January.
Murray clearly was disconcerted by his player’s finish in Melbourne, Australia. But when I asked him about their status recently, he replied, “All is good.” (Stephens’ publicist would not make her available for an interview, saying that she was in training. But her interview session after the Australian Open showed her to be upbeat despite the early exit from the tournament.)
Stephens’ mother said Murray’s hands-on mentorship is needed by her daughter. The night before the US Open final against Madison Keys, for example, Stephens suffered from extreme anxiety, and her mother texted Murray, asking him to visit her in her hotel room for counseling. This was unusual — Murray and Stephens had a routine in which they would part ways after a day of tennis and not reconvene until the match or practice session the next morning.
Once at Stephens’ hotel room, Murray realized that his player was in a panic. He didn’t have a speech prepared for such an occurrence, so he called an audible. He figured she needed to be reassured that she had the talent and the game plan to beat Keys.
Murray grabbed a marker, drew up some X’s and O’s and showed Stephens how he wanted her to hit as many shots to Keys’ forehand as possible.
At the time, Stephens thought her coach had gone mad.
“Madison has the best forehand in the game,” Stephens told him. “Are you trying to end my career?”
Murray explained that, yes, Keys has an incredible forehand. But studying hours of video had taught him that while Keys lives on her forehand, she doesn’t like to hit it while moving to the right. His theory: Make her move to the right as much as possible and take her out of her comfort zone.
“I wanted her to put Madison in a little box over there in the right corner and keep her there,” Murray recalled. “Sloane bought into it, and it worked beautifully.”
Getting people to buy into his plan is perhaps Murray’s greatest gift, whether it’s a pro tennis player on the verge of stardom or a teenager from the neighborhood searching for a path to a better place.