With the opening of XS Tennis Village, Kamau Murray aims to transform the South Side neighborhood of Washington Park into a hotbed of college-bound athletes.
Kamau Murray (Photo by Kevin Penczak)
In the mid-2000s, when Kamau Murray’s first crop of unknown tennis students was dominating junior tournaments around the country, opponents started asking incredulous questions. “Where do you play?” they’d want to know. “Dunbar,” Murray’s original five players would reply.
“I’ve never heard of that club.”
“It’s not a club. It’s a park.”
A little-used park on Chicago’s South Side, at that—whose courts had lain dormant for years until Murray founded XS Tennis in 2005 to offer kids the same invaluable opportunities the sport had given him as an African-American boy growing up in South Shore.
Fast forward 12 years, and Murray’s vision has crystallized in the form of a just-opened, $15 million tennis village in Washington Park. It’s the product of a major fundraising drive that leveraged everything from city financing courtesy of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to donations from tennis royalty including Billie Jean King.
The goal? To guide students along a path to college scholarships through tutoring and athletic instruction. “We are clear on our purpose, and that’s to help kids get a free education,” says Murray, now 37. Soon, as many as 5,000 young tennis scholars may benefit from the Murray method, thanks to the 116,000-square-foot, 13-acre facility designed not just to boost athletic performance but academic achievement, too. In addition to classrooms and individual tutoring, the center boasts 12 indoor tennis courts, four indoor mini courts, 13 hard and four clay outdoor courts, a track and turf field, a 10,000-square-foot gym with a basketball court and top-of-the-line fitness equipment.
For Murray, the brilliance of tennis (particularly as a sport that has historically been the domain of affluent white suburbanites) is that it gives minority students common ground with business executives. “It makes the conversation more interesting,” he says. “And it gives you great answers to interview questions about adversity.” The key to Murray’s surprisingly simple coaching philosophy: discipline. “It’s all about giving maximum effort, on a consistent basis, in an organized fashion,” he says. “The goal is always—whether it’s with the kids or with Sloane [Stephens, Murray’s highest-profile player]—to keep it simple and clear.”
And the method is working: Stephens, then ranked 83, shocked the tennis world in September when she returned from foot surgery and became only the third player outside the top 10 to win the U.S. Open since 1975. With Stephens’ success, Murray’s name is now on the lips of every who’s who in the tennis world. But he says the increased exposure isn’t creating any extra pressure. “I’ve always thought XS was the best place to play tennis,” he says. “All the U.S. Open did was help other people realize it. It’s going to be the same steady approach, and we’re going to keep helping as many kids as possible.” 5336 S. State St., 773.548.7529, xstennis.org