In Part I of an extended interview with Kamau Murray, the Chicago native details his move from Corporate America to the full-time coaching ranks, and why now that's he's here, he's not going anywhere.
WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen
August 13, 2019

Read Part II of Kamau Murray's Interview here

WTA Insider: How did you get into tennis? 
Murray:
I grew up not far from a park. My parents needed someplace to kind of get some cheap babysitting during the summer. In my neighborhood, all the summer camps were full because they enrolled us late. The only camp that was still accepting people was a tennis camp, because in my neighborhood nobody wanted to play tennis. So they were begging people to come. 

My parents were tennis naive. They never played tennis, never watched tennis, and didn't know anything about it. They just started dropping me off. I think I played in a summer camp that cost $12 for the whole summer. 

I started in that camp and at the end of that summer, the coach alerted my mom to the free program that lasted during the school year. It was really convenient babysitting, so my mom said fine, you're going to play the whole school year because the coach said you have some talent. 

So for me, it was for convenience that I started playing tennis. It was not driven by ambition.  

But I think when I got into it, people started to say I looked like Arthur Ashe because I was skinny with a big head (laughs). So then that became the joke: Arthur Ashe Jr.

"People started to say I looked like Arthur Ashe because I was skinny with a big head. So then that became the joke: Arthur Ashe Jr."

WTA Insider: What did you like about it? 
Murray:
Most tennis players will tell you that, initially, tennis is not as much fun because it takes a long time to get good. People typically don't enjoy things that they're not good at. I think once you become good enough to start competing and maybe having some success, I think it becomes fun. 

I enjoy competing and I enjoyed the competitive process when I became good enough to compete. But I think the process of learning the skill initially, swinging and missing, I would say 90% of tennis players will tell you it didn't start out very much fun.

WTA Insider: How long did it take before you were having fun?
Murray:
Four years. So from 7 to 11, it was torture and activity. It was just a thing to do in addition to still playing basketball. Then I think at 11, I started to compete, play tournaments, and get out, go to the suburbs of Chicago. I thought oh, I'm not bad! I'm not great, but I'm not bad. 

Especially given what my parents were investing. They weren't investing any emotional that time into it, they weren't investing any money into it. So dollar for dollar, I was pretty good. The ROI was pretty good compared to what other kids were spending at wealthier clubs, expensive coaches. 

"I'm from the South Side of Chicago. I enjoy measuring my toughness against your toughness."

WTA Insider: What do you like about competing? 
Murray:
I think that competition reveals a lot about your character. My household was very cerebral. My dad was an attorney, now a judge, and my mom was a high school principal. Very high academic standards in my family. So I think that the competitive process is really intellectual and I enjoy that a lot. 

And also, I'm from the South Side of Chicago. I enjoy measuring my toughness against your toughness. So I enjoy the intellectual part of it and the toughness of it.

WTA Insider: Is tennis an intellectual sport? 
Murray:
It changes from where you are in your development and I also think it changes within a match. Within a match there are parts of that match that become very academic, and then parts of a match where it becomes sheer toughness and being courageous.  

I think tennis is all of that in the same day. It's all of that at multiple times at different times of the day, all in the same day. That's what makes it difficult, but that's what makes this environment what it is. 

This is the best combination of athletes and thinkers. There's not a lot of dumb people in this environment right now. This building contains a lot of courageous and smart and athletic people. It's a weird combination of all three. Some are higher on each scale, but you don't get into this building without being intelligent.

It's a great teaching tool to also teach kids how to think in the moment and how to adjust, because Plan A rarely works for an entire match. There's always an adjustment, and there's always a counter-adjustment. You have to be present and thinking and absorbing and flexible. 

People who are inflexible in this sport? They struggle. 

Kamau Murray and Zina Garrison watch Taylor Townsend at 2014 Roland Garros (Getty Images).

WTA Insider: So how did you get into coaching? 
Murray:
At first it was just a thing to do on the side. I was working in corporate America for a while, in pharmaceuticals for Pfizer. I spent a couple of years in New York City and then I took a transfer to sales in Chicago. 

I started getting involved with a couple of kids in my own neighborhood because the old guys here like, 'Hey Kamau, you're back in town and we got a couple of kids here. You're single with no kids, you got free time, you gotta keep busy.' 

I was just charging 20 bucks for a lesson at the public parks. I worked with a couple of kids and they happened to get good and started having some success, and their success brought other kids. So what started as maybe four or five kids in a park, grew into this whole charismatic group of kids who were playing local tournaments. 

An opportunity came up to take over the space where I grew up playing, where Katrina Adams learned to play, Donald Young, Taylor Townsend. It was this weird phase where I'm working a full-time job but I had more kids willing to come after six o'clock just to be a part of this big group. So I did it.   

I did that as a side thing to make it an option for the community. Taylor was transitioning from juniors to pros and her mom reached out to me, so me and Zina Garrison started working with Taylor. She did well. She got to 80 in the world and climbing. 

Taylor Townsend takes on Caroline Wozniacki in the first round of the 2015 Australian Open (Getty images).

In January 2015, I was with Taylor at the Australian Open. I had used all my vacation days the whole month of January for Auckland and Hobart. January 27 came and she was about to play Caroline Wozniacki. 

I called my boss and was like 'Hey, I'm out of vacation days and I'm going to commit to Taylor.' Luckily my boss's daughter was an Olympic swimmer, Rebecca Mann. And he said, oh I did that. My kid went to Baltimore to train with Michael Phelps, so if that's what you want to do that's great, and anytime you want to come back, come back.  

I really just quit because it was becoming hard to balance both. Taylor could now play a full schedule because she had just turned 18. The travel was going to be more international. So I decided to go ahead and commit to that. Once that sort of ended, the Sloane opportunity arose. 

That's really how I ended up working full-time. 

WTA Insider: What is it about the job that keeps you in it?
Murray:
I still work with my kids back in Chicago. So that's always Priority No.1 for me. I think the journey of helping people whether they're 5-years-old or 25 is very rewarding and also very challenging intellectually, challenging and stimulating. 

I enjoy the ability to not only have a local impact back on my city but also have a global impact, help players grow their global profile and change their lives through this sport. 

I think it's important that minorities be present in the sport. Three years ago there weren't multiple African-American coaches coaching Top 100 players. Once you have that seat and that opportunity, you don't give it up because there are only two of you. Who's gonna fill it? And it might not get filled with another black coach. You hold that place for the others, not just necessarily for yourself. 

"Three years ago there weren't multiple African-American coaches coaching Top 100 players. Once you have that seat and that opportunity, you don't give it up."

WTA Insider: What do you think needs to happen for there to be more minority representation in the coaching and player support ranks of tennis?
Murray:
I think that it's two-fold. The job of the minorities in this space is to continue to do a good job, represent, and reach back. If you are the leader of that team, to employ and bring up the numbers. 

There's no job board. Because you travel the world with somebody, the relationship has to be there. The sport is so global now, so very few of these players know that there is a great African-American trainer in DC. So unless the people who are in the sport proactively connect people or expose them or introduce people, then it won't grow. 

It's not for the white players or the Spanish players to look for an African-American coach. It's not about that. It's about African-American coaches, who have done a good job, who have credibility, to bring other people into the space, give them the opportunity to succeed and hope they take advantage of it. I believe it's on us.

I think there are African-Americans who've done great jobs. Jarmere [Jenkins] is doing a great job, Jermaine [Jenkins], Abdul Sillah, OG [Othmane Garma], me. I think they're coming, so as long as we continue to bring others into this space, even if it's temporary, I think that's a start. We can't wait for other people to be brave and step out and seek us out. It's not about that. 

"We can't wait for other people to be brave and step out and seek us out. It's not about that." 

Players are trying to win money and they're going to do whatever. They're going to take whoever is in front of them, who's available. So if they don't know that you exist, if they don't know you're the best hitter who played to UVA, then it's up to us to say hey, I know a guy.  

So we have to always connect and always reach back. If you look at the number of African-Americans in this space, it's not that many. There's like 5 of us out here. There's no competition. There's no, like, hey we're bringing a sixth one in and he might eat my lunch. 

No, it's good. There's still 94 other jobs. 

So I think we have to proactively reach back and invite people into this space, and then leave it up to them to do a good job and represent themselves correctly. They still have to deliver. At the end of the day, this is not charity. This is professional sports. People are out here earning a living and taking care of their families.

Be flexible, be unselfish, be about the other person. That's really it.

Read Part II of Kamau Murray's Interview here