The impact of Sloane Stephens’ first U.S. Open Finals has so many dimensions. The 24-year-old’s victory cemented her as a force in the women’s game. It boosted optimism for the future of women’s tennis and the tradition of African-American excellence that extends from the legendary Althea Gibson on through the Williams sisters' iconic journey.
Stephenson’s inaugural major win also solidified and verified her coach Kamau Murray’s decision to cease a steady career in corporate pharmaceutical work at Novo Nordisk Inc. to take his part-time hustle of coaching tennis and make it a full-time grind.
Murray, now 36, didn’t just end up coaching professionally, he helped a young African-American tennis prodigy fulfill her potential and reach the pinnacle by winning her first U.S. Open title in a sport that - Williams Sisters aside - doesn’t produce many champions of color.
Murray’s story fits into the chapters of Sloane Stephens’ book of black girl magic perfectly. There’s a cultural connection and mutual understanding between the two that can only be found in minorities striving to be champions in a traditionally white-dominated sport.
Sloane Stephens was hyped about that fat #USOpen check she's about to cash. 😂😂😂 https://t.co/Pg0oSRAY0d
Murray is a former tennis player at Florida A&M, a Historically Black College & University with a solid sports tradition, but he spent his years there from 1998-2004 using his sports prowess to help fund and pave the way for the MBA he got from FAMU’s School of Business and Industry.
“I definitely did not come to FAMU with the idea of being a tennis coach,” Murray told tallahassee.com. Murray says he was a good player, but being a pro wasn't in the cards. Breeding champions and molding diamonds out of charcoal, however, was something he knew he could excel in.
“I fell in love with the process of transforming young people into great adults,” Murray continued. “ I gave up my corporate job, which SBI trained me for, and took a risk. I was making money in my corporate job. I gave it up to focus on a purpose. This is very fulfilling, to be able to help somebody achieve their dream.”
Pharmaceuticals just wasn’t Murray’s passion. He initially took the conventional route and then had the courage to do what so many of us fail to do, and he chased his dreams. Once he was committed to pursuing that dream, he started knocking down doors like dominos. A chance meeting with Stephens in 2015 would set the stage for Murray and Stephens’ joint ascension from afterthought to top of the game.
Congrats to my @FAMU_1887 #Rattler Kamau Murray, who coached @SloaneStephens to her first @usopen title! @rochelleriley #USOpen
Murray first met Stephens while coaching her doubles partner, Taylor Townsend. At that point, Stephens had flirted with major victories, defeated both Williams Sisters in matches and was stuck in a rut, unable to get over that first majors hump.
Murray started coaching Stephens in November 2015. When Stephens suffered a stress fracture in her right foot that ended her 2016 season and required surgery, Murray was there to lend support, keep her mentally sharp and provide solid mentorship.
“I’m extremely proud,” Murray said about Stephens. “She’s earned it. She’s put in a lot of hard work. She’s been open to guidance and direction.”
Since Stephen’s monumental win and phat payday, the dynamic duo are gaining in celebrity and notoriety. The world is eager to find out more about the new face of American women’s tennis and her coach, probably the first from an HBCU to guide an African-American prospect to one of tennis’ greatest achievements.
Murray would have never found his Mona Lisa in Stephens if he didn’t throw his inhibitions to the wind and take a leap of faith by coaching full-time. It was a risk he was willing to endure and now that he is an accomplished coach, Murray still utilizes his intelligence and the business skills he acquired in college, off the courts.
Murray runs XS Tennis, a program that he started in 2005 on Chicago’s South Side with five minority players. Four of those first five XS players received full scholarships to college, and one, Taylor Townsend, went on to play professionally. XS Tennis has since sent more minorities to Division 1 schools with tennis scholarships than any other tennis organization in the nation.
Sloane Stephens' coah Kamau Murray is also doing great things on the south side of Chicago. #usopen https://t.co/JgJrA8hrVn
In 2008, XS Tennis formed XSTEP in order to reach and support a greater number of Chicago’s underserved urban youth. Through its in-school program, XSTEP brings tennis into elementary schools in at-risk communities, introducing an pathway that continues through the XSTEP after school and summer camp programs. XSTEF now impacts the lives of nearly 3,000 students across numerous underserved Chicago communities, from Roseland to Garfield Park.
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We are witnessing the next phase of American tennis excellence. While The Williams Sisters were breaking records, Murray was trying to secure funds and complete XS Tennis Village, a $10-17 million training academy for young players that would serve as a talent pipeline feeding the continued dominance of African-American women in tennis, long after The Williams Sisters have hung their rackets up.
The endeavor was launched in 2014 in partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority. XSTEF has secured land for the XS Tennis Village, a new, 112,000-square-foot athletic and academic enrichment center in the Washington Park neighborhood that has the support of the tennis community and is nearing completion.
Congrats @SloaneStephens and her coach, Chicagoan Kamau Murray - thanks for all you do on the South Side: https://t.co/tCijehEOKT #USOpen
Together Stephens and Murray, both products of The Williams Sisters legacy in some way, now have the formula to blaze trails and cultivate the next generation of American tennis stars.
Stephens, who idolized the Williams Sisters as a child, will be the alluring face and championship stamp for XS. And although she isn't a product of XS, her champion’s spirit was molded and massaged to the forefront by the founding father of the program.
The star power is booming and the credibility is affirmed. Therefore, the future is bright. If you didn’t know Sloane Stephens and Kamau Murray before, get to know them now. Their mustard seed is growing into an empire and the future of tennis has a chance to be as fruitful as the past.