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December 6, 2013

Tennis Comes Strong To The Inner City

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Written by: David Smallwood
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Tennis Inside 1

For many decades, the Robert Taylor Homes at 51st and State streets was the site of so many hard knocks for Black kids growing up.  Soon, in its rebirth, that same area will be the site for a lot of Black kids knocking hard – on tennis balls, that is – in an effort to ensure a more productive future.

In the fall of 2014, XS Tennis, one of the nation’s largest Black-owned tennis training programs, will open a new $6 million, 100,000-square-foot state-of-the-art athletics complex located where that notorious public housing development used to stand.

The Robert Taylor Homes consisted of 4,400 apartments in 28 buildings of 16 floors each.  The site has been vacant since the city tore down the projects and the CHA pegs its future as a mixed-income housing area.

Currently located at 1301 East 47th Street in the L.A. Fitness Center, XS is owned by native Chicagoan Kamau Murray, a former two-time Athlete of The Year in tennis at Florida A&M University, who founded the operation in 2008.

XS has experienced such growth since then that its own facility is warranted. The new complex, which will break ground in the Spring of next year, will include eight indoor tennis courts, eight outdoor clay courts and 11 outdoor hard courts, including one with stadium seating.

In addition, the venue will host an adjacent multi-use venue for track and field, soccer and other sports. Also included in the complex will be a basketball court, weight room and aerobic exercise space, as well as ample locker rooms.

Key to the vision is the creation of several second-story multi-purpose rooms to provide space for one-on-one homework assistance, tutoring and the mentoring of young people.

Joining Murray in this new venture are former tennis star Zina Garrison as Vice President; Olympic Gold medalist and Chicago’s own Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who will lead the track and field program; and NBA standout Quentin Richardson, who will serve as director of the basketball program.

 

A Boon For A Challenged Neighborhood

It is anticipated that the opening of the new XS Tennis complex will bring much needed vitality to the challenged 3rd Ward neighborhood.  XS Tennis staff will grow from its current roster of 17 (14 coaches and three administrative staff) to 53.

The development is expected to turn the neighborhood into a busy destination for students and adults.  Murray already anticipates subsequent expansion phases, including the development of dormitories that will allow the venue to host tournaments, drawing competitors and their families from across the nation, as well as retail facilities that can be leased to further support the foundation’s initiatives.

Third Ward Ald. Pat Dowell says, “Not only will it transform a vacant parcel of land into a bustling destination for people from throughout the greater area, it also will provide the young people in our area a great place for physical fitness, education and recreation.

“In addition, it will bring new opportunities for employment to our residents. I anticipate that the opening of XS Tennis will have a sizable ripple effect throughout the Third Ward as it grows and fosters new business in its nearby vicinity.”

XS Tennis board member Raquel Graham-Crayton, an independent marketing strategist and former Ebony marketing director, credits Mayor Rahm Emanuel with helping to make the facility possible by opening TIF possibilities.

“Our lease was up (on 47th Street) so the issue came up of what we wanted to do and where we were going to go.  We started looking at concepts and places – a lot of different options – and once we got a meeting with Mayor Emanuel, he helped us tremendously with our new location, hands down,” Graham-Crayton said.

Kamau’s Story

Coach Kamau Murray explains fundamentals to young members of the tennis program.

Coach Kamau Murray explains fundamentals to young members of the tennis program. Photos: Sonya Martin

“As a graduate of the Chicago Public Schools, I know personally that the athletics programs I participated in were crucial to my development during a critical stage in my life,” Kamau Murray says.

He attended Murray Language Academy and Whitney Young High School, where he also played basketball, and began playing tennis through the Chicago Park District, where he demonstrated innate natural ability and quickly excelled.

Murray became the Chicago Public School City Champion for four consecutive years (1994-98) before attending Florida A&M University on a full scholarship, where he was twice named Athlete of the Year.  Kamau was the first athlete from a “non-revenue producing” sport to receive that award.

He was named the Arthur Ashe Scholar Athlete of the Year in 2002 and served as Florida A&M’s assistant tennis coach while obtaining his MBA from that university.

After school, working full time for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Company, he returned to Chicago in 2004.

“When I came home, I found the tennis programs had kind of died down and there wasn’t much activity going on.  It broke my heart to see minorities being shut out,” Murray recalls. “I was never determined to be a tennis coach, but I also at the same time knew what tennis had done for me, so it was important for me that those activities at some level continued to exist.”

He began offering tennis coaching to five girls on a volunteer basis in 2004, and as the need for a program of its type became increasingly evident, XS Tennis was founded in 2008.

With the support of Melody Hobson and Ariel Investments, the XS Tennis & Education Foundation was launched in 2010.

Led by Murray and Vice President Zina Garrison (a 1988 Olympic Gold Medalist for tennis), the foundation works to provide academic and financial support to promising junior tennis players in local communities, to find creative ways to inspire kids to learn, and close the divide between sports and education.

Additionally, the foundation works to grow the game in high-risk, low-income populations through accessible, affordable, and exciting tennis programs.

How? The foundation’s Tennis XSpress program takes tennis on the road, bringing training to 25 Chicago Public Schools in many of Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods.

With rackets, tennis balls, and portable nets in tow, Tennis XSpress transforms Chicago Public School gymnasiums into a world of opportunity by turning the gym into four mini-tennis courts in less than five minutes.

In some instances, the tennis classes replace a weekly physical education class; at other schools, it is offered as an after-school program, keeping the students active and safe during those times when they are most likely to be idle, unattended, the victims of crime or involved in criminal activity.

Unarguable Success

Coaches Nick Bollettieri and Kamau Murray explain fundamentals to young members of the tennis program.

Coaches Nick Bollettieri and Kamau Murray explain fundamentals to young members of the tennis program.  Photo: Sonya Martin

Currently, approximately 2,000 students take advantage of the Tennis XSpress program in the public schools, while another 400 attend the training program classes for an average of 10-12 hours a week, according to Murray.

Correspondingly, the organization’s successes have been remarkable, producing two number one world ranked players at the junior level – Donald Young and Taylor Townsend – both of whom have gone on to play professional tennis.

Murray’s initial five students have gone on to win 17 national and international junior championships, four IHSA state championships, two Junior Olympic Gold medals, one Wimbledon doubles title, two Australian Opens titles (doubles and singles) and one US Open junior doubles title.

For the past eight years, all of them were ranked in the Top 10 in the Midwest in their age group. Today, four of those first five are playing college tennis with full scholarships at Harvard University, West Point, Stony Brook University and the University of Illinois. The fifth student, Taylor Townsend, began playing tennis professionally a few months ago.

As XS Tennis has grown, the record of successes – both athletic and academic – has not diminished.  The ACT scores of students participating in XS Tennis’ program average an impressive 26.

From 2008-2012, every student participating at XS Tennis’ top level has received a college tennis scholarship to a prestigious university, including University of Chicago, Wesleyan University, DePaul University, Southern University, Georgia Tech, Butler and others.  That’s about 19 students, 100 percent of whom received college scholarships, according to Murray.

“The opportunities for tennis scholarships for young people are tremendous,” he says.  “Upwards of 20 percent of the tennis scholarships available to females go un-awarded each year, and the opportunities for young men, while not quite as abundant, are still ample. Our programs are laying the groundwork for these kids to achieve great success in all areas of their adult lives.”

Murray is perhaps most proud of having inspired thousands of other African American children from the South Side of Chicago to play a game that they might have initially seen as elitist. “XS Tennis has made tennis, a sport typically played mostly by the affluent, accessible and popular among Chicago’s urban youth,” he says.

“When these kids see themselves and their peers excel, it introduces them to the idea that they can and should pursue bold, audacious goals, including competing at a national or international level, or applying for college scholarships at prestigious universities.”

XS Tennis trains both the body and the mind. Currently, the University of Chicago provides tutoring for the students – ACT and SAT prep, teaching kids how to speak and represent themselves in public, according to Murray – and the MacArthur Foundation is considering some type of similar involvement with the program, according to MacArthur’s Director of Education Connie Yowell.

Murray says, “Children who participate in sports programs naturally benefit physically, but the advantages that the type of programs XS Tennis offers multiply exponentially as young people grow and hone their talent.

“One of the most gratifying things I have witnessed is watching our students as they learn a multitude of life lessons alongside their tennis training, including tenacity, sportsmanship, the importance of a strong work ethic, self-confidence, and how to interact with and support their peers.”

XS Tennis is not just for kids, though.  It offers both adult and junior training with individual and group options, as well as adult and junior leagues. And it is currently on a capital funding campaign to cover the expenses of its new move.

“We are a 501-c3, envisioning to create a debt-free facility so that we can really have our doors open to the community,” says Murray.  “We’re on a mission to raise $1 million by February to break ground and $7 million over the next two years to pay off the loans we already have, so that this new facility is one day debt-free and we can expand our success model – 100 percent of kids who come through our program going to college for free.”

 

To contribute to the fund, enroll in the program to play or learn tennis, or just for more information about XS Tennis, visit xstennis.org.

 



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David Smallwood