Around this time last year, Kamau Murray was having the biggest week of his career, coaching Sloane Stephens in the US Open.
Stephens came into the 2017 US Open unseeded. Expectations were low. So as Stephens battled through the tournament — even beating Venus Williams in an epic, three-set semifinal — Kamau knew he had to take action.
"I called everybody into a hotel room, and we had a meeting. And the directions were to not talk about it," Murray says. "Don't say a word that the prize money had increased. Don't say a word that, 'Hey, if you win this round, the prize money doubles.' Right? It was, like, 'Nobody say a word, or I will send you home.' "
But while Kamau Murray was in New York coaching Sloane through her first Grand Slam final, he was also juggling a $16.9 million construction project back in his old neighborhood in Chicago … and managing a foundation that brings tennis to thousands of at-risk elementary students in the city’s public schools.
'I Would Have Settled For Scottie Pippen'
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Kamau Murray never could have imagined that one day he’d be a rising star on the pro tennis coaching scene. But then, he never imagined himself involved with tennis at all.
"I didn't even own a tennis racket, never watched tennis on TV," Murray says. "I was like everyone else in my neighborhood. I thought I was going to be Michael Jordan. Or I would have settled for Scottie Pippen, even, at that point."
One summer, when Kamau was 7, all the basketball camps in the city were full. And that’s how tennis came into his life.
"My mom drove past Jesse Owens Park, and she slowed down and asked the guy teaching lessons, 'How much for summer camp?' And he said, 'It's $12 for the rest of the summer.' And she kicked me out of the car and made me go play."
From the start, Kamau’s dad, a lawyer who had played basketball and baseball in college, had a directive for his four kids.
"He told us you need to find a ball and kick it, spike it, shoot it or hit it, because I'm not paying for college."
Kamau tried out for his high school basketball team. But when he didn’t make it, he defaulted to the sport he’d become better at: tennis.
"I really felt like I was a kid that could have gone either way," Murray says. "I had friends on both sides of the train tracks, if you will. And if not for tennis, I could have gone left instead of right."
Kamau got a tennis scholarship to Florida A&M. He studied business and stayed on for a Masters. He took a job in New York with a pharmaceutical company.
One Christmas, he was in Chicago visiting his parents. And he decided to drop in on the facility where he had learned to play tennis.
A new operator had taken over. Prices had gone up. The place was nearly empty.
"You know, when I was a kid growing up in that exact same building, you could go there at 4, 5 or 6 o'clock and there were 100 kids playing tennis for free or some very nominal amount.
"So, I had this bright idea of taking over the old facility to, sort of, 'make it like it was.' I told my mom what I wanted to do. And she thought I was crazy. And then my dad called me a couple days later and said, 'Your mom told me you need $90,000 to buy out the operator. I think you're out of your mind. But we will refinance the house and loan you the money. But I need it all back.'
"My finance degree taught me to make a very detailed Excel spreadsheet to make sure I could pay my parents back. Because the last thing you want to do is have your parents mortgage their house and go into foreclosure."
Kamau kept his day job with the pharmaceutical company, moved back to Chicago and, in 2008, he launched XS Tennis.
For most of the kids in his program, the goal isn’t to go pro. It’s to get a college scholarship. He wants them to have the same opportunities to get an education as he did. He charges on a sliding scale. No one’s turned away.
And he makes the same promise to the parents of every kid who walks in the door.
First, we’ll keep them safe.
Second, we’ll help them grow.
Third, we’ll help them win.
Before long, XS Tennis had sent its first class of kids from the South Side of Chicago off to college … on full-ride tennis scholarships.
"And from their success, I think, spiraled into a model and motivation for other students to say, 'Hey, that kid looks like me. They walk the same elementary school and high school halls that I do. And they're not, like, some super athletic person. They just are a normal kid who committed to a process for 10 years. And at the end of that 10 year period, they're rewarded with a $250,000 college scholarship.' "
The success of those students didn’t just attract more players from Chicago’s South Side. It also attracted parents of kids from wealthier neighborhoods — parents who were willing and able to pay full price.
By 2015, Kamau was still working his day job, coaching kids at night and co-coaching a former XS player named Taylor Townsend who had turned pro. He knew it was time to make a choice.
"I left my job, January 27th of 2015. I mean, you know, you leave a job that you've had for 13 years, right? You put yourself, your family — you put a lot of things at risk. You've got a company car, company credit card, they pay your cell phone bill, they pay for gas in the car, they pay your house internet bill. A lot of things were very comfortable in my life. When you have a job when you give up all these comforts and safety nets, you remember the day."
Taylor switched coaches later that year, and Kamau switched his focus back to the kids in his academy. By then, he had broken ground on his larger dream: a 150,000-square-foot, 27-court tennis facility on the site of the Robert Taylor Homes, described in The Undefeated as “once the largest public housing project in the country and one known for drugs, gangs and tragic childhoods.”
Kamau says he wanted to keep his tennis academy close to the kids who needed it the most. But it’s that location that led people to make assumptions about what Kamau Murray was trying to do.
"When I first started the project, I'll be honest with you, people say, 'Oh, what you're really doing is building a community center. A tennis community center.' I'm, like, 'That's not what I'm building. Like, I didn't leave a successful career — and give up my free company car and gas card and cell phone and insurance — to build a community center. I'm building one of the best places to learn to play tennis that just so happens to be on the South Side of Chicago.' "
A Call From Sloane Stephens' Mother
Soon after breaking ground on what he calls his “tennis village,” Kamau got a call from Sloane Stephens’ mother. At that point, there were big expectations for Sloane. She's the daughter of a championship swimmer and a former Patriots running back. She’d beaten Serena Williams to reach the semifinal of the 2013 Australian Open. But she changed coaches often and hadn’t yet lived up to her promise.
"It was, like, 'Hey, can you come out for a week?' " Murray says. "I was, like, 'Sure. I'm not that busy. I can go out to LA for a week and coach a great player.' "
One week turned into two. Two turned into three. And before long, Sloane’s mother, Sybil, offered Kamau Murray a job.
"She said, 'I'm gonna trust you with my child. She's doing this to make money. Ultimately your job is to help her win,' " Murray remembers.
But Kamau has never been known for telling people what they want to hear. So he told Sybil the exact same thing he says to the parents of kids back on the South Side of Chicago.
"I told her, 'Well, my job is actually three-fold. My job is first to keep her safe. Two, to help her grow, because she's still 20-something. Right? And then third, to help her win. And I think if we do the first two, then winning becomes easier.' "
And it worked. By January of 2016, Kamau was traveling 30 weeks a year with Sloane, and she won three singles titles that year alone.
But that fall, Sloane was diagnosed with a stress fracture. She had surgery and spent 11 months in a wheelchair.
Sloane had only been back for 57 days when she entered last year’s US Open. At that point, she was ranked No. 83 in the world. No player with that low a ranking had ever won the US Open.
"She didn't have a seed in the first round," Murray says. "So there weren't a ton of expectations."
But then, Sloane beat Venus in that semifinal. The night before her first Grand Slam championship match, Kamau got a phone call from Sloane’s hotel room.
"And her mother was there and said, 'Ah, I think you should go talk to her.' I'm, like, 'Why?' She's like, 'She's in a full body sweat.' "
Kamau had just returned from Billie Jean King’s house, where he’d gone to wash some dirty clothes.
"You don't know if you're going to be here for two days or two weeks, so at that point I had run out of a clean shirt," he says. "And Sloane always gives me stuff about looking presentable on television."
He had some of Sloane’s clothes, too. So he used that as an excuse to knock on her door.
Once inside, his only job was to calm her down.
"You try to convince them that there's no reason to be nervous, when deep down inside you're, like, 'Yeah, you should be scared. Totally afraid. 'Cause tomorrow's the biggest match of your life.' "
Kamau reminded Sloane that she’d be playing her good friend, Madison Keys. He told her that nobody watches the women’s final anyway – that the stadium would be half empty.
"They don't need to believe you," he says. "They need to believe you enough so that they are at least able to get a good night's sleep."
And the next day, an apparently well-rested Sloane Stephens became the 2017 US Open champion.
"You win a Grand Slam, your life changes ... forever," Murray says.
But that day didn’t just change Sloane Stephens’ life. It changed Kamau Murray’s, too.
For a long time, people questioned his decision to give up a good job to coach kids. Suggested his tennis facility would be better located in a more affluent neighborhood. And when the inevitable Chicago construction delays slowed down progress, they wondered whether Kamau should be spending so much time on the road with Sloane.
Kamau says people trust him more now that he’s coached a Grand Slam champion. And much of that trust comes from the people he needs most to buy into his vision: the parents of the kids in Chicago.
"For 10 years, it was, like, 'Well, I don't know, 'cause Johnny down the street said this. And Mary on the North Side said this.' You know, I get a lot less of that. So that's a good thing."
Kamau understands why those parents are so invested in making sure their children get the most out of their tennis education.
"I mean, you have people who are investing dollars that they could simply put away in an account for college. So, I get what that $15 for that hour means to that parent. But I also get what a $1 million bonus means to Sloane."
This is how it goes when you talk to Kamau Murray. When you ask about coaching Sloane Stephens, he inevitably talks about the kids back in Chicago. And when you ask about the kids back in Chicago, the conversation turns to Sloane Stephens.
There’s a synergy there, and Kamau’s committed to using that synergy for all it’s worth.
"A lot of what we have achieved back in Chicago is because when I'm at the US Open, I'm meeting with people," Murray says. "Our kids need free rackets. It's hard for the Wilson guys to say no to me, because I see them every week."
'I Just Rest My Eyes'
Sloane Stephens was knocked out of this year’s US Open in the quarterfinals. But that doesn’t mean Kamau Murray is going to be slowing down.
First, it’s back to Chicago, to make sure the fall programs at his academy get off to a good start … and to make sure his own kids make it to school every day.
Then Sloane plays tournaments in Asia.
Meanwhile, Kamau has more fundraising and city planning and construction to consider, as he hopes to build out the area around his academy — to revive the whole neighborhood.
"So there's projects I'm working on now that I try to keep moving while I'm away and when I'm home, you know, I give my undivided attention to."
Kamau Murray says he doesn't sleep much — not even at night. He’s too worried about the things he didn’t get done and the things he needs to do when the sun comes up.
"I really, truly don’t get good sleep," Murray says. "I just rest my eyes."
This segment aired on September 8, 2018.