The Sitdown: Kamau Murray, tennis pro, wants academic aces

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A squat, nondescript building whose sign can’t be seen off of 47th Street in the Kenwood neighborhood houses the XS Tennis and Education Foundation, which has served up several aces: teaching 2,300 children in grades K-3 tennis fundamentals; offering area kids free tutoring from the University of Chicago enabling 27 of the tennis students, many of them from Chicago Public Schools, to win full-ride scholarships to college worth a collective $4.1 million. The foundation founded is being touted as an invaluable neighborhood partner in the University of Chicago’s bid to win the Obama Presidential Library. Founder and Executive Director Kamau Murray, 34, is known for coaching South Side phenom Taylor Townsend, who at age 18 is ranked 104th in the world and is competing in the Australian Open. He’s also preparing to expand XS, with a planned fall opening of a 3.5-acre facility at the former Robert Taylor homes site at 51st Street and State. The new $9.8 million center includes $2.9 million in TIF money and $3.9 million in private donations, of which $1.9 million has been raised.

We’re trying to identify talent early — the earlier the better. Tennis is not a sport that requires a high level of athleticism. You can almost guarantee that a student will be a collegiate-level athlete if he or she has the skills. The skills are interest, focus, hand-eye coordination and a love for the game.

We look for some who may be somewhat at-risk to keep them on the straight and narrow.

The goal is to get 10 percent of the kids at the 10 CPS schools where we provide programs to convert and come to a real tennis court for traditional training. We’re at our mark of 10 percent — 200 kids.

We can turn any basketball court into four tennis courts. We are ahead of the trends. The wave of the future is a 36-by-18-foot court for children ages 8 and under.

We’ll hopefully convince some of the bigger, stronger athletes to choose tennis in addition to football and basketball. And at age 14, he or she can decide which he’ll be better at and get a scholarship. If you make a kid make a choice at age 7, any boy on the South Side will choose basketball — because of Rose and Jordan.

Tennis has been keeping those kids going. They will say, “I’m starting to get letters from colleges as a freshman.” Now college is a reality. It’s a tangible. That’s reason enough to stay engaged in school.

A lot of kids I see in my neighborhood didn’t complete high school. It was clear that paying for college or going to college would be a challenge.

Ultimately, our goal is to get kid to go to college for free. For example, the young lady working the desk now, Darneesha Moore, 18, went to Morgan Park Academy. She is from a single-parent home and grew up in the Avalon Park neighborhood. She is going to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on full scholarship.

We try to do things a 5- or 6-year-old can have success at so they can stay engaged. On Saturday afternoons, we’ll invite kids from our CPS schools to meet each other. We will form teams.

We want kids from different neighborhoods to meet each other. There are a large number of these kids who don’t travel outside of their neighborhoods.

We ask the K-3 students to identify college tennis teams. We encourage kids to research the schools, find out about the coach and get the coach’s phone number.

The fact they’re starting to look into a college program can keep a kid going and help them set appropriate goals. Maybe a kid comes back with a postcard of Harvard. We talk about goal-setting and expectations.

A 10-year-old has a hard time seeing himself or herself as a professional. It’s hard to make that leap and say, “I can be Serena.” But it’s easy to see a 12-year-old or for a 12-year-old to look at a 14-year-old who just won state championship. He or she can say, “I can see two years.”

Every time a 10, 11- or 12-year-old wins a tourney, we put up a big banner in the main entrance so that a 9-year-old can see it and believe in the model.

Kamau Murray | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Kamau Murray | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

I stay current with music. I can recite the rap or the song with the students. This is fun for me.

I’m still a kid at heart. I still listen to Drake, the latest rap and R&B.

To see a 9-year-old, like Zoe Spence or Natalie Whalen, go from age 9 to age 18 and off to college — from a clumsy little kid who is now this beautiful, gorgeous, well-trained athlete who has a college education waiting for her. [Spence has a scholarship to Notre Dame; Whalen to Indiana University.]

If this wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t have made it this far. To work and convince the powers that be there was a need for this, it had to be fun.

I love staying at home. I live in Washington Park. My wife, Jennifer, and my 10-year-old daughter, Brooke, and I watch movies.

I’m famous for my onesie. I take a shower and put on my onesie PJs with feet and a zipper, and sit in front of the TV.

I watch commencement speeches on the Internet. . . . I love information. I’m not a big reader but I love video; I love to hear other great minds talk about how they persevered. I’m on TED Talks all the time to find different motivations; to find people who’ve taken the road less traveled and made it through it.

I went to Murray Language Academy, Whitney Young High School and Florida A&M in Tallahassee.

I was on the semi-pro circuit after college. I tried my hand at the pro tour. The expense was a little too much for my family. At some point, tennis becomes a bad investment, like when you spend $5,000 on the tour and win $1,500.

But I know, because I did it, that young people can turn a four-year scholarship into a six-year scholarship. I got two degrees for free: My undergrad was in marketing. I worked as a graduate assistant coach and earned my master’s degree in finance.

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