For more than a decade, Kamau Murray has committed himself to using the sport of tennis to empower, educate and inspire young people of Chicago.
On Sunday, Murray joined a list of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) alum — including Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson and John Wilkerson — that have gone on to become professional tennis coaches, guiding their African-American players to gain Grand Slam champion, and Olympian, status.
Kamau Murray | Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University | Illinois
After a relatively brief stint coaching native Floridian, Sloane Stephens, Murray helped the Olympian capture the fourth major tournament on the Women’s Tennis Association’s tour schedule.
“I’m happy for her. I’m grateful that she gave me the opportunity to work with her back in November of ‘15,” said Murray, a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) title winner while with the Florida A&M University (FAMU) Rattlers in 2000.
“She’s had tons of big-name coaches and aside from Taylor [Townsend], Sloane is only the second person I’ve worked with on the WTA Tour. So I was happy she gave me the opportunity to work with her and I think that we’re a great fit, hence our long relationship and decent success,” he said.
Earning an undergraduate and MBA in finance from FAMU’s School of Business and Industry, Murray said “I’ve taught a lot of juniors, probably sent 40 kids to college. I’ve got about 2,300 kids in my academy.”
“She’s been the most open, which says a lot, because she probably knew the most about tennis of anyone I’ve taught,” said the South Shore native and Whitney Young Magnet High School grad.
Murray decided to transition from his sales representative position with a corporate pharmaceutical company to “focus on a purpose.” Since deciding to pursue his passion, in addition to Sloane, Murray has worked with Women’s Tennis Association touring pro, Taylor Townsend, and Association of Tennis Professionals touring pro, Donald Young.
Working with youth is “very fulfilling” to the 36-year-old who gains energy and inspiration from being able to “help somebody achieve their dream.” Combining his professional and personal skills with his experience as a competitive junior and National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division I student-athlete, Murray goes about his business aiming to deliver excellence in all that he does.
Kamau is very clear and proud about why he ended up in Tallahassee. He went there “to get an education” and fell in love with FAMU’s “process of transformation young people into great adults.” With the instrumental role he played in Stephens’ ascension, Murray’s journey through tennis has transformed him into a great leader.
“Kamau has an incredible voice and a gift for making you believe in something,” said Derek Douglas, vice president of civic engagement for the University of Chicago.
“We’re lucky to have a leader like him on the South Side.”
Dr. "Whirlwind" Johnson | Lincoln University | Virginia
“The desegregation of tennis was due in large part to the efforts of Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson. The first African American to earn staff privileges at Lynchburg General Hospital, he also worked to overcome barriers keeping young African Americans out of tennis.As founder of the Junior Development Program of the American Tennis Association, Johnson sponsored African-American players from across the country in tournaments and coached and mentored them on a court here at his home. Among those he trained were Wimbledon Champions Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. Johnson was posthumously inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.” - International Tennis Hall of Fame
Over the summer, to commemorate the legacies of those two great champions and the inimitable man who taught them both the game, the USTA partnered with the Johnson Family to reconstruct Johnson’s court — in Lynchburg, Virginia — restoring an important artifact of tennis history.
“This is a fitting tribute, particularly as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Althea’s title and the 20th anniversary of Arthur Ashe Stadium, to restore this unique and incredibly important part of the tennis narrative.”
“This court represents a significant part of American history and civil rights,” said Robert Walter Johnson III, grandson to Dr. Johnson. “This is the court where the color line in tennis was changed forever.”
The process of restoring the court began back in 2007, with the initial push to earn Dr. Johnson (pictured above right, with Gibson) his rightful place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame – he was inducted in 2009 – and progressed from there, with grandson Lange Johnson eventually teaming with the USTA to make the project a reality.
“Seeing the court restored means everything to our family and the families of the over 200 children who benefited by being part of Dr. Johnson’s Junior Development Program,” said Lange. “That court was symbolic in that it was the launching pad in life for those who were fortunate enough to experience it.”
Johnson, a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, was a football All-American in 1924 at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He served as tournament director of the Central Inter-Collegiate Athletic Championships Association, vice president of the American Tennis Association (ATA) and founder of the ATA Junior Development Program. Lincoln University awarded Johnson an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 1971 and bestowed upon him the first Laureate Lion.
John Wilkerson | Texas Southern University | Texas
"I taught Zina and Lori to play tennis but also to be themselves," John Wilkerson told the Houston Chronicle in 2006.
"Your job as a parent, I think, is to get that kid to be independent of you. Kick him out of the house as soon as possible. But, in tennis, they don't take that approach anymore. They want to keep their kids under wraps all the time. When Zina got nationally ranked, her family got involved, but by then the die was already cast. She had her game.”
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Wilkerson is definitely one to consider for inducting into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. A Phillis Wheatley High School high school graduate, Wilkerson’s tennis skills developed in warp speed, earning him a scholarship to Prairie View A&M University. Upon joining the US Army, the former interscholastic district and state title holder eventually attended Texas Southern University (TSU), winning the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) Singles and Doubles Championship.
"John had the patience and the personality to build up kids' egos," said Lori McNeil. In a 1994 interview with the Washington Post, McNeil said Wilkerson "knew how to keep us involved, how to give credit and attention. There were plenty of instructors around, but only one as patient as John."
Under Wilkerson’s tutelage, in 1981, Garrison became the first African-American to win the Wimbledon and US Open Junior titles. becoming the number one ranked 18-year-old player in the world.
A U.S. Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) Certified Tennis Professional, the Black Tennis Hall of Fame and Texas Tennis Museum and Hall of Fame inductee remains active as the Zina Garrison Academy’s senior director of tennis.
To date, the Zina Garrison Academy has served more than 22,000 children, and in 2016—after years of fundraising—established a relationship the University of Houston, sharing a space with the school’s women’s tennis team.