XS Tennis and Education Foundation’s new 13-acre, 27-court facility has been called “a cathedral to youth tennis” (Chicago Magazine). With rare-to-the-Midwest clay courts, as well as an in-house physical therapist, conditioning gym, and academic center, it’s easy to see why.
But it represents so much more to the community than just a fancy athletic facility. The $17 million investment in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood is training the next generation of south siders not just to have a great backhand, but also to earn free college tuition.
“If every kid here doesn’t go to college, we have failed,” says Kamau Murray, the founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit organization. “In our community, ‘participation’ is such a low goal that we tend to set. But our goal is much higher than getting some CHA kids off the streets. Our goal is Billy Jean King on speed dial. Our goal is free college.”
At a time when other notable South Side developments have been either delayed (Obama Library) or derailed (Lucas Museum), Murray drove home the massive construction project over the course of 3 years. It wasn’t easy.
“Satisfying all the different stakeholders takes a lot of stamina,” Murray says. “From the financial standpoint, you have TIF, New Markets, donations, equity, and debt – it’s a very complicated financial deal, and everyone has their own requirements. Then you have the daily construction headaches – dealing with the contractors, permitting, hiring – and the very real need to work within a community that hasn’t seen a lot of development. It’s a lot. But it’s been worth it.”
IFF was part of the financing structure for the new XS Tennis facility, providing a $500,000 loan to bridge capital campaign pledges in 2015 and then an additional $1.7 million bridge loan in 2016. IFF’s real estate solutions team also provided owner’s representation services throughout construction.
XS Tennis opened its doors to kids in December 2017, though they’ve continued to add finishing touches over time. The photos below showcase the new space now serving hundreds of kids every week at 5336 S. State Street.
A new home on the South Side
XS Tennis began with a small handful of students training outside at a public park in the summer and the unheated National Guard Armory on 51st and Cottage Grove during the winter. Today, the organization impacts the lives of nearly 3,000 students annually out of a modern 116,000-square-foot facility on the corner of State and 55th – the former site of the Robert Taylor homes, the largest housing project in the U.S.
The new facility is one of only three tennis facilities in the entire country located in a low-income Census tract.
A pathway to college
XS Tennis Founder Kamau Murray is known for coaching tennis notables Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, and Monica Puig. But he says the focus of XS Tennis isn’t necessarily to create world champs – it’s to provide a pathway for kids to earn full rides to Division I schools, where scholarships sometimes go unused.
“If a kid has some athletic ability and is willing to commit to a process from about age 11 to 18, they can get an education and then get a career – not just a job,” Murray says.
Before it moved to its current permanent home, XS Tennis sent 47 students to college on tennis scholarships that have a combined value of $9 million. Murray says they have many great alumni stories: “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.”
The new XS Tennis facility includes an Academic Center with both a full-size classroom and individual study rooms to help their busy student-athletes balance study and sport.
Friends in high places
Murray may sound like he’s joking when he says “success is Billie Jean King on speed dial” – but the two tennis-inclusion advocates do text and connect on a regular basis. In 2018, King brought a World Team Tennis event to the XS Tennis facility – the first professional tennis match to be played in the city of Chicago in over 25 years.
Before the event, the tennis legend – regarded by many as one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time – spoke with WBEZ about the importance of XS Tennis to the south side: “We know access is absolutely important. Without it, you can’t make it.”
Murray agreed, saying: “When you ask pros how they got started in tennis, they all say the same thing: ‘I grew up across the street from a court.’ Proximity matters.”
The massive XS Tennis facility includes a 10,000-square-foot training gym as well as an on-site Athletico Physical Therapy center, designed to optimize the sports performance of the athletes who train there. It also includes an indoor lounge area where parents can observe their children’s training in comfort and away from the noise on the courts, as well as a clubhouse in the center of the outdoor courts to provide easy access to restrooms and air conditioning.
Indoors: The longest stretch of tennis courts in the world
XS Tennis is the third largest indoor-outdoor tennis facility in the United States, and the first tennis facility of its kind on the south side of Chicago. The 12 consecutive indoor courts are the longest stretch of courts in the world – ensuring everyone gets a chance to play, even during Chicago’s harsh winters.
Outdoors: To clay or not to clay
XS Tennis boasts 15 outdoor courts, four of which have clay surfaces. Movement on clay courts is very different from movement on any other surface – requiring the ability to slide into the ball during the stroke, as opposed to running and stopping on a hard or grass court. Clay courts are used in the French Open and are generally more common in Europe than in North America.
“In 20 years, only two Americans have made the finals in France, and there’s a reason for that – there just aren’t enough places to practice,” Murray says. “Historically, players would go to Europe 4-5 weeks early in order to train on the clay surface. That’s a lot of time away from family, and a lot of expense.”
Clay courts are more difficult to maintain – lines need to be painted more frequently, the surface needs to be rolled flat regularly, and the level of water in and on the ground needs to be monitored closely. But Murray insisted on including them.
“The clay courts do a couple of things for us. One, we’re always trying to expose more kids to more opportunities,” Murray says. “But the clay courts are also a draw for highly competitive players across the U.S. That makes XS Tennis a destination. That raises our profile. That brings dollars into the community.”
A place to play
“My early introduction to tennis was sort of stress-free. It was free babysitting for my mom, and I was more concerned about what other kids thought of me than I was about performing well,” Murray recalls of his introduction to tennis at the age of 7, when his mom enrolled him in a free program at the Hyde Park Racquetball Club. “Nowadays, parents are watching every stroke, counting their dollars, deciding whether it’s a good investment. You see a lot of people burn out and drift away from the sport. Here at XS Tennis, I try to make sure our kids are having the same coaching experiences I had as a kid – hard, but also fair and also fun. And my students are already coming back to volunteer as coaches who follow the same philosophy – full circle.”