Usually when people think of sports in Chicago, basketball comes to mind: the 1990s world champion Chicago Bulls or Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) boy’s and girl’s basketball programs. But not tennis — especially not tennis on Chicago’s South Side. 

South Shore native Kamau Murray is actively trying to change that narrative by training the next generation of Black tennis players through his XS Tennis Village and XS Tennis and Education Foundation (XSTEF), both located on 53rd and State streets in the Washington Park neighborhood.

“The goal when we built this facility was to try to bring tennis to an urban environment and within reach of African-American kids and just continuing to push diversity in the sport,” Murray said.

Murray’s doing just that. For the past two weeks, XS Tennis Village has been the host site for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour. The Chicago Tennis Festival is currently in its second week and comes with many firsts: it’s the first time that WTA 250 and WTA 500 level tournaments are being produced on the South Side; the first time the WTA tournament is being produced by a Black person, Murray; and former pro-tennis player Zina Garrison is the first Black woman to serve as tournament director. 

To add more icing on the cake, four-time Olympic gold medalist, seven-time grand slam winner and 16-time doubles grand slam title winner Venus Willams competed in the tournament’s marquee event on Monday evening. 

“It’s so exciting. I’ve been working the desk [at XS Tennis]. So I’ve already met her. She’s the sweetest,” Nia Cooper said about Williams. The 16-year-old tennis player trains at XS Tennis and was preparing to watch the match between Williams and Taiwanese pro player Su-Wei Hsieh. “I’m so excited to watch her play. I think this is gonna be a great match.”

South Shore native Kamau Murray is training the next generation of Black tennis players through his XS Tennis Village and XS Tennis and Education Foundation (XSTEF), both located on 53rd and State streets in the Washington Park neighborhood. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
Tennis megastar Venus Williams entering XS Tennis Village for the inaugural Chicago Tennis Festival. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

Hsieh, who has won three singles titles and 29 doubles titles on the WTA tour and seven medals at the Asian Games, ended up beating Williams in two straight sets, 6-2 and 6-3.

“Honestly, it was great to see the crowd and that support [when] I walked out there. I was so delighted. It was so unexpected to just see that. I definitely wish I could have won today. I was just so rusty and just haven’t played in a while and really just getting back into the swing of my swing,” Williams said. “I had some really nice moments out there, but not enough of them. I just wish I could have given the crowd more, but I think they appreciated the times where I was hitting some fantastic shots.” 

This tournament isn’t the first WTA tournament in Chicago. In 1991 and 1997, the city hosted WTA tournaments on indoor carpeted courts at the UIC Pavilion.  

“So, being able to have [the WTA tour] here provides people from the community [an opportunity to] come and watch world-class tennis right here inside their community,” Murray said.

The TRiiBE caught up with Murray on Aug. 18 at XS Tennis Village during week one of the Chicago Tennis Festival. Murray said negotiations and planning took place over the last year. 

XS Tennis opened its doors back in 2017. It’s a Black-owned and operated, multi-million dollar athletic complex that stretches more than 13 acres. The facility also boasts 15 outdoor courts and 13 indoor tennis courts in addition to a fitness center and classrooms.

Prior to becoming the founder and CEO of XS Tennis, Murray played tennis at Florida A&M University. He later went on to coach some of the greatest Black tennis players, including Sloane Stephens, a pro tennis player who won the U.S. Open Women’s title in 2017, and Taylor Townsend, a pro tennis player who was named International Tennis Federation (ITF) Junior World Champion in 2012.

"Kids are starting to do well and get an opportunity right now to be ball kids and be around professional tennis players, sort of that whole, ‘Gotta see it to be it,’ idea,” Murray said. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

Through XSTEF, which is an extension of XS Tennis, Murray’s goal is to reach Chicago youth interested in tennis and support them. So far, XSTEF has sent 47 youth to Division I schools with tennis scholarships. In addition, XSTEF offers in-school programming to Chicago Public Schools, serving about 3,000 students annually. 

Although Murray and the XSTEF have been successful over the years in preparing children to compete at the next level, the work in shaping Chicago’s South Side into a tennis powerhouse is still ongoing.

“We have hundreds of kids that come here on a weekly basis for tennis lessons. So the participation is continually going up,” Murray said. “Kids are starting to do well and get an opportunity right now to be ball kids and be around professional tennis players, sort of that whole, ‘Gotta see it to be it,’ idea.”

With WTA, Murray said XS was poised to host the tournament in Chicago because it was created to bring professional tennis to the South Side, but it still took some convincing.

“We built a great venue and one of the hardest challenges in creating the tournament is having a venue,” Murray said. “So, since we have this venue that’s sort of ready to host this kind of thing, it was just convincing them that Chicago was a market that could support it.” 

At the Chicago Tennis Festival, young kids enrolled at XS Tennis volunteered as ball boys and girls. Ashleigh Johnson, a 14-year-old XS tennis player and incoming freshman at Chas High School, was one of the ball girls that assisted during Williams’ match. 

“It was a fun and amazing experience. It was a lot of pressure. Just because this is Venus, you don’t want to mess up,” Johnson said. “But all it takes is [knowing] the techniques and the strategies. Once you get that part of it, it’s just a fun experience.”

Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

I’d like to see more tennis in Chicago. The appetite is here for it,” Venus Williams told The TRiiBE during her post-match interview on Monday. 

Although there’s been an increasing number of Black women specifically who are becoming mainstream in the sport, like Stephens, Naomi Osaka, and Coco Gauff, Murray said there are still barriers that prevent Black children from accessing the sport. Some of the biggest obstacles are costs and proximity to tennis courts, access to expert coaching and diversity on and off the court. 

XS offers tennis instruction on a sliding scale. For youth interested in receiving lessons, Murray said the costs for a year of training and practice could be about $2,000, which is less than $200 a month. Outside of XS Tennis, these costs could be anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 a year.

According to its website, XS Tennis is free to Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) residents and there are income-based scholarships available too. For children under 18 years old, the membership fee is $25 a month with a $75 initiation fee.

“Even kids who are considered wealthy struggle to afford international travel and better coaching and trainers,” Murray said. “No matter how much money you have, it still is a humongous financial commitment, and you feel it.” 

Chicago’s weather also plays a role. Indoor space is needed in the colder months for tennis. But, Murray said the city has numerous outdoor courts. There just aren’t enough coaches using the public courts at the city’s park districts. 

However, Murray does believe there has been a progression in terms of diversity in the sport. Now, he wants to see representation in tennis extend past the players on the court to commentators, tournament promoters, umpires and agents. 

“I’d like to see more tennis in Chicago. The appetite is here for it,” Williams told The TRiiBE during her post-match interview on Monday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and many other Chicago dignitaries came out to watch Venus Williams play. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE
The South Side crowd was fully loving up on Venus Williams during the match. Photo by Darius Griffin // The TRiiBE

During Williams’ match, the crowd was so hype that the referee had to remind everyone not to talk during play. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and George Daniels of George’s Music Room were among many of the local celebrities in the crowd. 

“People have been supporting it all. People are excited for the next event coming up. So I would love for the conditions to continue where we’re able to put sports here on the South Side. It’s beautiful here. The people are beautiful. The atmosphere is beautiful,” Williams continued.

The Chicago Women’s Open will continue through Saturday. The Chicago Fall Classic is next up and will begin on Monday, Sept. 27. Proceeds from the Chicago Tennis Festival will help fund XSTEF. For more information, visit: https://www.chicagotennisfestival.com/

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.