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Kamau Murray is helping S. Side kids win tennis championships — and college scholarships

The XS Tennis founder and CEO has helped 47 players get scholarships and coached Sloane Stephens, who won the 2017 U.S. Open.

When Kamau Murray was in high school, he had a hard decision to make on whether he should keep playing basketball, the sport he loved, or pursue tennis, a sport he also had been playing since he was a boy.

At the time, he was on the Whitney Young Magnet High School basketball team that starred Murray’s best friend, Quentin Richardson, who would go on to play in the NBA. But a blunt conversation with his parents about his future prospects, the fact that tennis offered generous college scholarships and the family’s finances put everything into perspective.

They said, “‘You know what, you’re probably not going to be 6-9 like your brother’” — former DePaul forward Malik Murray, Murray recalled. Tennis, they said, “‘might be a good opportunity for you.’”

Murray realized, “I was not going to be successful on that basketball team.

“So I always say tennis chose me.”

The decision to pursue tennis turned out to be crucial to his future.

He went on to play in college and later started the XS Tennis and Education Foundation, which opened a massive indoor tennis facility on the South Side now used by 3,000 kids annually.

XS Tennis’ goal is to provide a space for kids from underserved communities to play the sport year-round and to go after college tennis scholarships that are often unused or less competitive than sports like football and basketball. The program has sent nearly 50 students to college on Division I tennis scholarships since its inception.

One of his students, Sloane Stephens, won the 2017 U.S. Open, while Taylor Townsend, played into the fourth round of the 2019 U.S. Open.

He’s extremely proud of how everything has turned out since he took up tennis.

“I found a lot of pleasure in helping somebody else achieve their goal,” he says. “ ... Getting a kid a scholarship helps me sleep good at night.”

‘Affordable babysitting’

Growing up in South Shore, Murray loved basketball.

But as a 7 year-old, he returned to the United States after a trip to Africa to discover that the Chicago Park District sports programs at Jesse Owens Park were at full capacity — except for tennis.

He says his parents — a Cook County judge and an educator — enrolled him in the sport because they needed “convenient, affordable babysitting.”

He continued to play while he grew up and starred on the tennis team at Whitney Young.

After quitting the basketball team, Murray ended up attending Florida A&M University on a tennis scholarship. While on the Rattlers’ tennis team, he was the team captain and they won a conference title in 2000.

He went on to earn an M.B.A. while at the Tallahassee school in addition to his undergraduate degree. After graduating, Murray went on to coach part-time, while working in sales for a pharmaceutical company.

Kamau Murray Founder and CEO of the XS Tennis Foundation,Tuesday, October 8th, 2019. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times
Kamau Murray, founder and CEO of the XS Tennis and Education Foundation, coaches a student.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

As Murray got more involved in coaching, he wanted kids of color to take advantage of the same opportunities he had by serving as what he described as a “tour guide” to lead them to scores of college tennis scholarships. But he needed a better venue to make his dream a reality.

“I thought that maybe, you know, tennis could be a great way to help somebody obtain a free education, right?” Murray says. “And I think that’s the purpose of this place.”

“This place” is XS Tennis Village, a $16.9 million indoor facility at 5256 to 5338 S. State built on the former site of the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project. It opened in 2018 after his tennis club had bounced around between the Hyde Park Racquetball Club, Dunbar Park and the Richard L. Jones Armory in Washington Park.

The state-of-the-art center, which received city grants and tax credits as well as private funding, includes 27 indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a 10,000-square-foot gym and a 5,000 square-foot academic center that includes training space and classrooms.

Murray says the building’s location is significant because some would-be South Side tennis players are “one train or one bus” away from the facility. And it allows players to train year-round.

“If someone plays tennis just when it’s warm ... they never never fall in love with it and it becomes more of a hobby,” he says. And it’s affordable, with memberships costing $25 a month.

Overall, he is proud to see “the pride that the kids have in the program” in their own neighborhood.

“This is a great community,” he said.