When Kamau Murray moved back to Chicago after completing his college career in 2004 at Florida A&M University, he did so with a clear understanding of where tennis can take a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago. After all, it was a free tennis program at the Hyde Park Racquetball Club that launched Murray’s own playing career at age seven and led him to Florida A&M on a full athletic scholarship.
What Murray couldn’t have known at the time was where that understanding would lead: to the organization he now heads – XS Tennis – hosting the first Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) events in Chicago since 1997 as part of the Chicago Tennis Festival, a three-tournament professional series held at XS Tennis’ facility in Washington Park. With Murray leading the charge to bring world-class tennis to the South Side, he became the first-ever Black promoter on the WTA tour.
In a Nutshell
What: IFF client XS Tennis recently hosted several Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tournaments at its facility on the South Side of Chicago, the first time the WTA has played in Chicago since 1997 and the first time a WTA event was produced/promoted by a Black-led organization.
Sector: Community development, Youth services
Location: Chicago, IL (Washington Park)
The series kicked off in August with the WTA Chicago 125 event, followed immediately by a second tournament – the Chicago’s Women Open – headlined by Venus Williams. Williams is a seven-time Grand Slam winner and four-time Olympic medalist who got her start in tennis on municipal courts in Compton, California. In addition to the tournaments themselves, festivities included a college tennis recruiting combine for Black athletes to connect with tennis coaches from Historically Black Colleges and Universities as they demonstrated their skills. In recent weeks, XS Tennis welcomed the WTA back to its facility for a third tournament – the Chicago Fall Tennis Classic – again hosting some of the world’s best players on Chicago’s South Side.
“There’s no way to overstate what an accomplishment hosting these professional tournaments is for XS Tennis or the importance of bringing events like these to the South Side of Chicago,” says Vickie Lakes-Battle, Executive Director of IFF’s work in the Chicago region. “Kamau’s vision for a world-class tennis facility in Washington Park was about creating the infrastructure needed for children to learn the game as a pathway to college, but it was also about making a statement that the South Side has just as much to offer as other communities in the Chicago area. Hosting the WTA underscores that point.”
The tournaments were the culmination of years of work by Murray to instill a love for tennis among South Side children and to help them understand where the sport can take them. In the early years after returning to Chicago, Murray worked a full-time sales job in the pharmaceutical industry while introducing children to tennis and coaching them on nights and weekends.
Over time, his passion project grew into something more, with Murray forming XS Tennis, taking over the facility where his love for the game developed, and working to recreate the environment that nurtured him in his youth. Hoping to make the game as accessible as possible to children of color living in communities with lots of potential but limited resources, Murray offered lessons at affordable rates, waiving fees altogether for children whose families couldn’t afford to pay.
XS Tennis thrived, as did Murray’s coaching career as he was hired by eventual U.S. Open Champion Sloane Stephens, leading Murray to leave his corporate job and go all-in on his vision for tennis on the South Side. With his own experience in mind, Murray hoped to create a pathway to scholarships in a sport rife with opportunities for children who might otherwise struggle to pay for college and to thrive once they got there.
“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,” Murray explained in a 2017 interview. “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.”
For these kids, being able to interact with these players and be literally courtside, catching the serves that come to the corner, that’s a life-changing experience.
Serving 2,000 children in Chicago each year in the leased facility in Hyde Park at the time, Murray knew that XS Tennis could do far more with a new facility better able to support the organization’s needs.
In short order, Murray began pulling together the funding and financing needed to make the dream facility a reality, working with IFF and others who bought into his goal to bring a world-class tennis facility to Chicago’s South Side. Though the process wasn’t easy, the facility opened in 2017 at 54th and State in the Washington Park neighborhood.
Hailed as a “cathedral to youth tennis” by Chicago Magazine, the completed facility features 27 courts, an in-house physical therapist, conditioning gym, and academic center. When it opened, XS Tennis’ complex was just one of three tennis facilities in the United States located in a low-income Census tract. XS Tennis has grown exponentially in the years since then, sending 47 youth to Division I schools with tennis scholarships and serving as a training ground for thousands more.
With professional role models to look up to now playing right in their backyard, the next Sloane Stephens or Venus Williams may already be living on the South Side and learning the game at XS Tennis.
“For these kids, being able to interact with these players and be literally courtside, catching the serves that come to the corner,” Murray said in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, “that’s a life-changing experience.”
Read more about IFF’s work with XS Tennis.