Local organization serves up success through tennis

By Mariel Turner

Kamau Murray, founder and CEO of XS Tennis. Courtesy of XS Tennis and XSTEF.
Kamau Murray, founder and CEO of XS Tennis. Courtesy of XS Tennis and XSTEF.

Kamau Murray wants people to know that the Williams sisters are not a fluke. Venus and Serena Williams have won eight gold medals and 55 Grand Slam titles collectively. More importantly, they represent a deviation from the typical upper-middle-class tennis player who has dominated the image of the sport for so long.

“They don’t believe that black people play tennis,” Murray says. “If minorities had the same opportunity, and could play as often as the kids in the suburbs do they would have similar success.”

Avid tennis fans are twice as likely to be African American, according to a Scarborough Sports marketing study, but African Americans only make up 1.13 percent of professional tennis players. This is due to a lack of exposure, Murray argues.

“There seemed to be a void on Chicago’s South Side, in terms of tennis programs and minority kids involved. I wanted to see the same opportunities I had available to the community,” said Murray, who grew up in Hyde Park and played tennis at Whitney Young High School on the city’s Near West Side.

It is with that vision in mind that Murray, 33, and a former scholarship collegiate tennis player, borrowed money from his parents and founded the XS Tennis and Education Foundation in 2005. The program initially offered tennis lessons and had only five players. Nine years later, XS Tennis works with nearly 3,000 students and offers after-school activities, tutoring and other sports camps in addition to tennis. Many of its services are free, and all payment options are low-cost. The organization has outgrown its five-court space in Hyde Park and announced the construction of a new facility in the spring.

XS Tennis reception area at its current facility in a Hyde Park LA Fitness. XS Tennis Village, a 112,000-square-foot center, will be the new home of the organization in  spring 2015.
XS Tennis reception area at its current facility in a Hyde Park LA Fitness. XS Tennis Village, a 112,000-square-foot center, will be the new home of the organization in spring 2015.

XS Tennis Village, the planned $9.8 million, 112,000-square-foot academic and athletic enrichment center funded in part by the Chicago Housing Authority, will feature eight indoor tennis courts, 19 full-size outdoor courts as well as a basketball court, outdoor track, four classrooms and a library. Located in the city’s Washington Park neighborhood, the tennis village originally planned to break ground in September, but construction has been delayed till early spring 2015. Murray declined to specify the holdup or the breakdown of funding for the project.

In neighborhoods where NBA and NFL dreams are prevalent, and many kids spend their time shooting hoops in their backyards, it was difficult to get the community involved when XS was first founded.

“My message was you can play basketball and still play tennis,” said Murray, who works as a sales representative at Novo Nordisk, an international pharmaceutical company. “You can run track, you can dance and still play tennis. I tried to create a system were you weren’t trying to force the kid to choose, because if you do, then tennis is going to lose. If you put tennis in front of people, then they kind of get a little curiosity, get a little hunger for it. The challenge really keeps you involved in it.”

XS has one shining success story: tennis player and rising star Taylor Townsend, 18. An Englewood native, Townsend has been playing and training at the current facility since she was six years old. She rose to prominence after defeating the 20th ranked player in the world at this summer’s French Open. Ranked only 205th in the world at the time, she has since risen to 108th and been featured by ESPN, USA Today, the Biggest Loser and Forbes magazine. Townsend also has helped XS Tennis gain renown on a national level.

“She’s not six feet, she’s not your typical athlete,” said Murray. “But she committed herself to a long process of learning the game. You don’t just pick up a tennis racket, swing it and all of a sudden you’re good. That road can seem really long and really intimidating but, I think Taylor–her success–has shown the students that if you stick with the process and commit to learning the skill over time you can have the same success.”

South Shore resident Romeldia Salter hopes her daughters will follow in Townsend’s footsteps. Camryn, 14, and Corinne, 11, have been playing at XS Tennis for the past seven years. Although they aspire to be a physician and attorney, respectively, Salter said they will always be “ambassadors for tennis.”

“It’s really good for the kids because of the camaraderie,” said Salter. “The kids get a chance to play with other kids. They build camaraderie with other children who have the same rigorous schedule they do. These kids have homework, they go to school all day and then they go play tennis.”

Salter also appreciates the support she has received as a parent in the program. Juggling the schedules of two daughters, one a student and dancer at Whitney Young, would not be possible without the assistance provided by XS, she said.

“The parents we work to together, we carpool, we share the joy and pains of watching your children learn how to compete in a lonely sport. I would love for the racket to take them to college. The reality is it’s tough. We encourage our kids to make sure that they are scholars as well.”

Salter also credits the Williams sisters for exposing many in the African-American community to the sport.

“Most people want their children to play team sports like basketball,” said Salter. “But now I see more kids moving towards tennis for that opportunity to get a scholarship. What Venus and Serena have done for the sport, they made black people realize that this is something that they can do, but it’s an expensive sport.”

Only 9 percent of adolescent tennis players are African American, according to the United States Tennis Association. Click to view graphic.
Only 9 percent of adolescent tennis players are African American, according to the United States Tennis Association. Click to view graphic.

The cost of the sport has been one of the primary reasons for low interest in tennis among inner-city residents. Many new rackets cost $200 or more and international tournaments such as the French Open can cost upwards of $4,000, according to ESPN. In neighborhoods where many are living paycheck to paycheck, enrolling children in tennis programs does not always make financial sense.

XS reduces the high cost of the sport by offering low-cost lessons and accepting monetary donations through its website. Many instructors volunteer their time without pay. According to the organization’s 2011 tax return, neither Murray nor any of the XS directors took a salary from the organization.

Murray believes his sacrifice is worth it. He argues that much of the crime and violence that has plagued Chicago is due to a lack of opportunity and hopes to influence the students of XS by giving them alternative options.

“Our facility, particularly the new facility will give kids a fun and engaging alternative to idle time. It’s the idle time that leaves them vulnerable to gang violence,” said Murray. “There are very few facilities like this where kids can go and be in a safe environment. If given the option I think they would choose the better option. But if left with no options then they fall to what’s available to them.”

Jed Hughes, a college and sports executive recruiter, agrees. “The athletic experience gives a young person an opportunity to do things they may not have been able to do, and that is raise themselves up, work towards a college education, work towards improving their trade.”

Murray wants to teach the children in his program that they, too, deserve a bright future.

“Were not selling kids the dream that they will go to the French Open, but if you commit yourself to learning the process and skill set you will more than likely end up with a college scholarship. That is what kids in my community need.”