Q&A with Kamau Murray: XS Tennis founder and Chicago’s champion coach

Kamau Murray coached Sloane Stephens to a U.S. Open championship in 2017 – just two years after they teamed up. By all accounts, her victory was unexpected in the tennis world, but Murray probably wasn’t surprised. His entire being is focused on creating opportunities for athletes of color to succeed in the white-dominated sport of tennis. For Stephens, that meant four major titles in the last two years. For many others, it means a way to pay for college.

To that end, Murray is building a massive new tennis training facility on the south side of Chicago that Chicago Magazine calls “a cathedral to youth tennis.” The 13-acre, 27-court facility – due to open doors on December 1st – will be home to Murray’s nonprofit organization, XS Tennis and Education Foundation.

Getting there wasn’t easy. Soon after the project broke ground, huge environmental remediation concerns were discovered, and another $4 million in capital had to be raised. IFF was a part of the financing structure from the beginning, providing a $500,000 loan to bridge capital campaign pledges in 2015 and then an additional $1.7 million bridge loan in 2016.

Here’s what Mr. Murray had to say about his organization’s new home and his new status as the coach of a champion.

 

  1. Let’s start with the Sloane Stephens question – Since she won the U.S. Open in September, you’ve gained some celebrity as her coach. What does this change for you, and for XS Tennis, going forward?

It hasn’t changed much for me personally, but I think it has provided validation on a lot of levels – for XS Tennis, for the kids who learned to play here, for Sloane who took a kind of risk hiring a relatively unknown guy as her coach, and for the early supporters like IFF who believed in me and in the project from the beginning.

I always say I could build this anywhere. I could build it in the suburbs or the north side and probably make a lot more money, but I’m really committed to the south side of Chicago. Coaching Sloane to the championship kind of proves that statement is true. People start to think maybe this guy really could build an academy in Burr Ridge and charge wealthy folks a whole lot of money.

We currently operate in an older facility that doesn’t have all the amenities of the suburban clubs, and sometimes our kids have a lack of pride in where they come from. But now I know for a fact that all our graduates – kids in collage, kids who have graduated – have a deepened sense of pride that they came from XS Tennis and that I was their coach. When you’re 11, 12, 13 years old, on the south side of Chicago, with a young African American guy giving tennis lessons in a white-dominated sport, you don’t really know if you’re getting the best of the best; you just know you’re getting what’s proximate to where you live. Now they know they should have listened to me; now they have pride when they text all their little friends!

Then I think of Sloane – I think how she hired a young guy who was not a household name on the tour. That was a risk a couple of years ago, given who she had coaching her before, and I think that risk paid off for her. She’s won five titles in her career, and four of them have been with me.

Early donors and organizations like IFF, PNC, Northern Trust, and Pritzker saw that this was a unique opportunity for the south side and something worth investing in. If all the kids we sent to college didn’t prove that this was more than an idea, I think winning the U.S. Open definitely proved it was more than an idea. Now maybe they’re all feeling kind of prophetic.

 

  1. ‘The Tennis Village’ is about to open in December. It’s a huge accomplishment, but did not come without sacrifice and expense. Can you talk about the challenges in bringing a project of this size to fruition?

First of all, from the financing standpoint, when you bring Tax Increment Financing (TIF), New Markets Tax Credits, donations, equity, and debt all into it, it’s a very complicated financial deal structure. It continues to take a lot of stamina to see this through. Definitely a tiring process, but well worth it.

Once we started construction, I got a glimpse of all the challenges, all the different coordination it takes, and all the stakeholders that have to be satisfied. One of the things important to staying true to the project was making sure the workforce was representative of the population we’re trying to serve. It’s important that people from the local area and minorities get a lot of the jobs to construct the facility. I feel those dollars will recirculate into the facility as they send their kids and their grandkids and their nephews and nieces to tennis lessons. That has been a little counterintuitive when working with the union; there’s no union requirement, but there’s pressure to use union workforce, and minorities are not well represented in unions. That’s been a balancing act, but we’re getting through it. To date, we’re about $1 million over our MBE [minority business enterprise] participation, and I’m happy we’ve exceeded that.

Then there’s reminding everybody that this place is being built off donations. This isn’t just like spending for-profit money, where a lot of people think “well maybe they’ll take a revenue hit, but they’ll be ok;” cost overruns in this sort of situation can kill the project. Trying to get an industry of people that are not very cost-conscious to appreciate what it takes to get to this point and who this place is going to serve is very challenging. Anyone who’s ever met me will tell you I’m unapologetic about the mission of this organization and who I am and how I got here – I’m not budging.

 

  1. You’ve said that you hated tennis when you first started playing at age 7. Eventually tennis led to a full ride to college and graduate school, and then to your life’s work influencing thousands of other youth to try tennis. Tell us about your tennis journey.

Like every kid on the south side in the Michael Jordan era, we all had dreams of playing basketball. My childhood idol was actually Penny Hardaway because he was tall and skinny like me. I started playing tennis because there was a free program at the Hyde Park Racquetball Club – the facility now occupied by XS Tennis – from 3-5pm everyday, and it bought my mom a couple hours to not have to worry about me. It was convenient babysitting for her, but I didn’t love it – I didn’t even like it. I was concerned about what the kids in the neighborhood would think if they saw me getting off the CTA bus with a tennis racket. I would do things like give another student my racket to take home with them and then bring back. Or I’d leave the racket in my coach’s car on purpose. There was no joy for me early on.

But then when I was 14, and a bunch of my friends made the national AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] basketball team, it became very clear that I wasn’t going to become a basketball player or get a basketball scholarship. So I decided to focus on tennis solely. I started playing 20 hours a week, and one of the things I found to be rewarding in tennis is that it is an individual sport. No coach was in charge of my playing time or in charge of my success; it was something I could own.

In tennis, you see a lot of people burn out and sort of drift away from the sport. Parents nowadays spend a lot of money on tennis, and they are watching every stroke, counting their dollars, deciding whether it’s a good investment. But because I sort of had a free and stress-free early introduction to tennis, I was allowed to really enjoy it and play and be free and develop. When I got a college scholarship, my new coach had the same philosophy; he basically said: “I’m paying your tuition, but you guys are men. Show up when you are supposed to show up, do your work like you’re supposed to do your work. This is your time to grow.” He kept it fun, and consequently everyone in my graduating class is coaching tennis – which is really rare. I think that speaks to the positive pathway that all of us had where we didn’t suffer from that burn-out.

After a few years after I graduated, I came back to Chicago, took over the old facility where I learned to play, and tried to re-create the same environment that existed when I was a kid. It offers very affordable tennis lessons after school – free for those who couldn’t afford even the low prices we were charging. Now we have probably one of the nation’s largest youth tennis organizations.

 

  1. Until a couple years ago, you were working a full-time “day job” while running XS Tennis as your “passion project” during evenings and weekends. Between running the organization and coaching Stephens and others, tennis is now your full-time job. Was this always the plan? Would your younger self be surprised to see you now?

It was never the plan, and even after the first 6-7 years of XS Tennis’ success, I still did not totally buy in to the idea of being a full-time tennis coach. I always just really wanted to preserve this opportunity for the south side of Chicago.

I did love coaching the kids at the end of a stressful day in corporate America. I was in pharma sales, always in front of clients who were smarter and more credentialed than me, always walking into a doctor’s office where they hated to see me coming. But then I’d walk into a place where the kids were really excited to see me, and it really made me feel good. You reset your state when you’re out on the court with a child because they are oblivious to your stress and what you’re going through. I often felt like I was getting as much out of the tennis as the kids were. I was re-setting my mentality. I was enjoying it. I was never the type of guy to go to happy hour after work, so it gave me something to do after work that I would consider to be very productive.

Initially, I wasn’t sure I should take the risk to quit my corporate job and become a tennis coach. On the south side of Chicago, you can’t charge what some other places can charge, so I knew I’d be making a modest living. It wasn’t until I was in Australia with Taylor Townsend, and she was getting ready to play Caroline Wozniacki in the first round of the Australian Open, that I thought I might be at the point where it was a pretty safe bet that I’d be able to pay my bills. I remember thinking: “All right, this is going pretty good. You’re coaching someone who is playing in a Grand Slam and about to play one of the top five players in the world. This is not a bad risk at this point.”

 

  1. You’ve spoken passionately about how tennis can provide a pathway for kids to earn full rides to Division I schools, where scholarships sometimes go unused. Explain how this works, and how your program weaves together sports and academics.

As we continue improving the CPS school system, more and more Chicago kids are getting into college. But then one of the challenges more and more kids are facing is how to pay for it. And if you pay for year one, how do you pay for year two? I have tons of friends who paid for year one, couldn’t pay for year two, took a year off to work, and never went back. Aside from the academic challenges, the financial challenges really lesson your chances of finishing college. That is why my sole goal at XS Tennis is to get kids to college. As schools and teachers continue to do their job, I feel like one of my jobs is to help give kids a way to pay for it. Because if a kid graduates high school and can’t go to college, they still are going to fall victim to some of the violence and decisions that they face staying in the city, making minimum wage, etcetera. It’s a challenge. I think that if a kid has some athletic ability and is willing to commit to a process from age 11 to 18, they can get an education and then get a career – not just a job.

If you get a young kid from the south or west side of Chicago who is from a middle-class or lower-middle-class family, their best chance at paying for and succeeding in college is an athletic scholarship. Just look at the published stats: college athletes graduate at a higher percentage than at-large students, and college athletes have higher GPAs than general students. A four-year scholarship means you don’t have to worry about the finances, and athletes also get benefits that are hard to quantify. When you think about a kid from Chicago – who may or may not have left the city – going to school in Iowa or Mississippi or Ohio, they are going to be in for such a shock to not have their support system around them. But when you go there as an athlete, you have a coach, you have teammates, you have an athletic department, you have tutors, you have all these systems in place to help you succeed that are not as readily available to at-large students. These kids basically know that if they stay on track and put in the hours, they’ll graduate – and the university will pay for it.

We definitely have a lot of great alumni stories. Some great kids are becoming great adults who are able to sustain themselves. I got a girl named Grace Smith who’s doing Teach for America. I have a kid named Chris Pile who’s an assistant coach at the University of Chicago. I’ve got a girl who just graduated from Emery who’s doing her residency. I’ve got a kid who just graduated from Harvard and is doing an internship before going on to grad school. I’ve got two girls at U of I and Northern Illinois who are graduating this December. We’ve got kids in dental school, coaching, doing post-graduate education work, volunteer work. All of our kids are used to being busy – they are used to going to school and then going to tennis – and now they are leading the same busy lives as adults; they are very responsible and stay out of trouble, and they are not burned out. I think they had a fun coach growing up who was hard but fair. Now they come into the club and volunteer with kids. Full circle.

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