Since a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Kamau Murray knew that his destiny was tied to the game of tennis.
After being a successful amateur and collegiate tennis player, the Florida A&M graduate began a career in corporate America as a pharmaceutical sales rep. He came back to his hometown to found XS and Education Tennis, a program targeting underserved youth in Chicago where Taylor Townsend was one of Murray’s first five players in the program. Murray’s vision has grown tremendously as XS Tennis is now housed in $16 million dollar facility that’s one of the largest indoor and outdoor tennis facilities in the United States.
Notably, he coached Stephens to her first Grand Slam title at the 2017 US Open and the following year, Stephens won the prestigious Miami Open and was runner up at the French Open.
Murray believes that he can help change the world with his love of tennis.
I caught up with Kamau and we spoke about creating equity in tennis, coaching Sloane Stephens to a grand slam victory, creating the Chicago Tennis Festival, and his Tennis.com Podcast.
Grove: Who first introduced you to the game of tennis?
Murray: I fell in love with the game when I was probably 12 but for the first five years, you had to drag me to the tennis court. It wasn’t something that I took a lot of pride in coming from my neighborhood. Everybody was like, why am I not playing basketball? It didn’t become a passion of mine until I became good enough to start bringing home trophies. At that point, I thought the neighborhood respected what I was doing because no matter what you do if you’re a winner, the neighborhood respects you. It was at that point where I developed the confidence and the ability to speak up and sort of share what my gift was.
My godfather, Reggie Williams, was a retired police officer and he and his buddies played at Jesse Owens Park in the neighborhood. When my mom was struggling to find a place to put me for the summer because all the camps were full, my godfather said, “Drop him off on 87th and Jefferson at this tennis camp and because it’s outside, it ain’t full.” So that’s really how I got in the game. It was just convenient babysitting and then a referral from my godfather. So I credit him for that.
Grove: Is it true that you went to high school with former tennis player Katrina Adams and former NBA player Quentin Richardson?
Murray: Katrina Adams is older than me, but you know, we grew up playing at the same tennis club on South Side. She went to school with me and Quentin at Whitney Young High School. Me and Quentin were best friends in high school. Same grade, same division, we just hung out all the time.
Grove: So can he play tennis and can you hoop?
Murray: He definitely can’t play tennis. I can play basketball better than he can play tennis. I played basketball up until I was 15. I was on the YMCA traveling team and then when I got to Whitney Young, I actually planned on trying out for the team and made the freshmen squad. All the good freshmen like Q, Dennis Gates, and Cordell Henry were on the varsity. So I was like, “I’m gonna let them have it. We can be boys and not be on the same team.” So I played ball all the way up until high school and then at that point, you know, Whitney Young were state champions. They won the state championship one year and I wasn’t gonna play on that team. Everybody on that team went to get a full scholarship and was 6’6 plus.
Grove: You went on to play and coach at Florida A&M before working in the corporate world. How was the transition from the corporate American to coaching Taylor Townsend and then Sloan Stephens?
Murray: When I graduated from Florida A&M, I went to work for Pfizer pharmaceuticals in New York City full-time and then I came back to Chicago around 2005 and started XS Tennis in the park. Eventually, we had a bunch of kids receiving scholarships and traveling to national tournaments as one of the few Blacks in the space. So when you’re doing something like that, as one of the few Blacks people in the game, the nation hears about it.
Taylor Townsend was one of the first players I coached. When I stopped, I got a call from Sloane Stephens’ mother to work with her on a temporary basis. She wanted me to take her to the Luxembourg Open. We actually lost in the first round so, I didn’t think I was gonna get a callback. Then they asked me to come to L.A. to practice with her. One thing led to another and then at the end of that year, we made it official and we’ve been going strong since then. We developed a good player-coach relationship, a good friendship, we’re like family at this point and obviously we had a lot of success together. Tennis is not a team sport so when you have that type of success, it’s a lot of one-on-one and it forges a relationship. That’s forever. It’s like Jay-Z said, “I’m a play forever.”
That was a great, great time being the only Black coach in all of pro tennis and being the third Black coach to coach a player to a Grand Slam title, then the Miami Open title and the ATP Masters 1000. It was a good opportunity to send a message that Black people can play in the space. It also showed that when Sloane won the U.S. Open, every Black Grand Slam champion has had a black coach. Venus and Serena had their father Richard and Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe had Walter Johnson. It showed the value in the translation that the player feels comfortable being able to speak freely, to be themselves and not have to guard their words. For the player, it makes a difference to how they compete and how they play.
Grove: Tell me about your vision of creating the Chicago Tennis Festival?
Murray: Back in the day when I was a kid, there was a tournament in Chicago called Virginia Slims and it was held at the UIC Pavilion. Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver, and Zina Garrison would all play there. It was a prominent stop on the tour but it became taboo to market cigarettes to women. So when Virginia Slims was no longer the sponsor the tournament became the Ameritech Cup for a little while. Ameritech got bought by SBC, and boom, the tournament ended.
So there was like a 25-year drought and I knew the value of a young Black kid being able to see it. We see Michael Jordan, we see Derrick Rose, we see Antoine Walker, and we see Quentin Richardson. There’s a lot of basketball players in the city but there’s not a lot of tennis in the city. You don’t see Serena and Venus. So my goal in creating the Foundation was also to bring tennis and put it in front of them so they can really kind of see what it looks like and sort of fall in love with it. I had the opportunity to as a kid. I got a kiss by Robin Givens right here on the cheek when she was here watching the tournament!
So the goal for the festival was to bring pro tennis back to Chicago, specifically to the South Side so that our kids can participate, be ball kids and get up close and personal. It’s a gift to the city. Coaching on tour and having good relationships with folks and having them respect me not only as a coach but as a business person, it opened up the opportunity to bring a global event to the city.
The next challenge is how do we help grow tennis because in America tennis still has a huge growth opportunity. It’s not as big as basketball, football, or baseball. Did you know that nine out of the top 10 highest-paid female athletes play tennis? This should be the number one sport for girls in America. There are 5000 cost scholarships available for girls. This should be the number one sport for girls. So even if we just look at that aspect there’s a humongous opportunity.
Grove: Tell me about how you came up with the concept for the Tennis.com Podcast?
Since I started doing the Tennis.com podcast, it was a seed in my mind. From the first episode I did for Tennis.com, I knew I wanted to have my own podcast. So I started mapping things out here and there in my mind, eventually, I put pen to paper and got the wheels turning, and here I am!
Grove: What do you want your listeners to take from the podcast?
Murray: Doing the podcast for Tennis.com really got me thinking about how much I love having an outlet to just talk about the ins and outs of tennis. As someone whose life basically revolves around the sport, there’s a lot of thoughts and opinions about it that just built up in my mind over time, and since it’s a passion of mine, it brings me a lot of joy to just be able to sit and put those thoughts out there. I also really wanted to find a way to help bring tennis to the forefront of people’s minds when they think of sports, just like football and basketball. I think having more podcasts that are dedicated to tennis helps further that, and I’d love to have tennis become just as ubiquitous in that respect.