When the Hyde Park Racquet Club opened in the late 1970s, amid the country's short-lived tennis boom, there wasn't another indoor facility in Chicago for 10 miles. The club occupied a section of 47th Street, near the lake, that long served as the boundary between the aging mansions of Kenwood and the greater South Side beyond. Across the street was a record shop that sold house music and a drive-through liquor store that peddled home brew in gallon jugs with the promise ''Won't go flat!'' In a hot-dog stand on the block, two teenagers once pummeled me with their fists while three of my tennis buddies could only watch, as we were useless at hitting anything other than yellow balls. The original owners of the club soon bailed. The many racquetball courts they had built went mostly unused. The sauna wasn't properly ventilated and rotted the locker room. A fitness chain eventually rented the space, filling half the tennis courts with weight benches and treadmills; the other five courts remained playable but were invariably coated in tennis ball fuzz, many of their overhead lights askew and glaring or altogether dark.
Despite its shortcomings, the racket club, as it was called, also served as a home for South Side tennis. Mark Bey, now a nationally acclaimed junior coach and an assistant coach to the doubles team of Mike and Bob Bryan, entered the building for the first time as a child in 1979. He saw a black coach training a black teenager, both of them highly skilled; it was like an invitation to the game, he told me. During group lessons, he would savor the fact that just about every court included an African-American ranked in the juniors. A couple of those players won the Illinois high-school state championship; most of them played in college, and many are now teaching pros themselves. Over the years a few have gone even further — Katrina Adams, Donald Young Jr. and Taylor Townsend reached the pro tour. And yet Hyde Park could still feel like a remote outpost in the vast empire of competitive tennis. The local junior tournaments were nearly all in the suburbs; the sought-after groups were hosted by clubs on the North Side or west and north of the city. Few of the destinations were accessible by bus or train. Mark Bey ended up coaching on the wealthy North Shore, where six indoor tennis clubs sit within a few miles of one another. I spoke recently to Dave Muir, an esteemed tennis instructor in Chicago for the last 60 years and one of the first managers of the Hyde Park Racquet Club. Like me, Muir is a white guy from the South Side, and he told me about a poem he once carved into his wood racket that made it clear we shared the same combination of loathing and longing for the courts we presumed to be greener on the other side: ''Seeded, unranked./When I'm reborn,/I hope it's up north.''
The South Side of Chicago is just one of many urban areas where United States tennis might now find an opportunity for growth. Serena Williams notwithstanding, tennis in this country still struggles to overcome the perception, not at all inaccurate, that it is largely a sport for white people with lots of money. While there were 34 million tennis players nationwide in 1974, there are only 18 million today, and the Tennis Industry Association estimates that just 3.5 million are black or Hispanic. Venus and Serena Williams first learned the game on public courts in Compton, Calif.; James Blake began playing at the Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program; Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil were trained at Houston's MacGregor Park; and Arthur Ashe was discovered on segregated courts in Richmond, Va. But as opposed to in every other major sport, these instances of tennis players rising up from city parks to the highest levels of the professional ranks are remarkably rare. The financial, logistical and even cultural barriers have been difficult to surmount.
The better athletes in America tend to play team sports they can easily access. It's not hard to imagine Roger Federer or Gaël Monfils, men with extraordinary athleticism, having developed into cornerbacks or wide receivers if they had grown up in the United States. In other countries, by contrast, tennis attracts the most promising young talent. Novak Djokovic isn't merely the greatest tennis player in Serbia; he is also arguably the country's greatest athlete. That's part of the reason there are currently just 12 American men ranked among the tennis world's top 200. Donald Young, who grew up playing on public courts on the South Side, as well as at the club on 47th Street, is the only African-American. Diversifying all levels of tennis is one way to increase the pool of potential players.
''The best thing we can do is make sure kids are exposed to rackets and courts at a very early age and from all walks of life,'' Serena Williams told me by email. ''You have to change the culture first, and the rest will follow.'' Children learning to hit groundstrokes in schools and public parks is a start, but those showing promise need somewhere close by and affordable where they can congregate and continue playing year-round — even through a Midwestern winter. Recently, the United States Tennis Association started a Hispanic outreach initiative, Tenis para Todos, and it has begun investing more heavily in its extensive grass-roots National Junior Tennis & Learning programs, where youth in underserved communities are first inculcated into the sport. ''We've got to make tennis much more accessible to nontraditional tennis families,'' Martin Blackman, the U.S.T.A.'s new head of player development and a former touring pro, told me. ''We have to identify and deepen the base of young athletes that are coming into the sport.''
A couple of miles from the old Hyde Park Racquet Club, on the former site of the Robert Taylor Homes, once the country's largest public housing complex, a new tennis center is now being built with the hope of accomplishing just that aim in Chicago. The $12 million XS Tennis Village will feature 12 indoor courts, 15 outdoor ones (including four of red clay), classrooms, a track and a state-of-the-art fitness center. Kamau Murray, who currently operates the existing tennis club on 47th Street, is behind this ambitious project. Murray says he believes the facility could change the lives of thousands of young people in this largely poor and black South Side neighborhood, using a combination of physical and academic instruction to teach not just tennis but also discipline and resolve. With a facility of this scale, he also envisions high-level training and tournaments, helping an increasing number of local athletes develop into top-ranked juniors and college prospects in their own community. As a critical mass of serious players forms on the South Side, other young people from the surrounding area might be enticed to join in as well. ''For this sport to survive in America, you've got to have a more diverse population of kids,'' Murray said. ''Finding kids in the community is the future of U.S. tennis.''
When I returned to the old Hyde Park club one morning this summer, a tennis camp with 80 children was underway. The weight benches had been cleared, the courts restored and resurfaced and the commercial corridor across 47th Street redeveloped. Murray, a lithe and loose-limbed 34-year-old who also grew up playing there, was leading a dozen of his best players through an array of drills. Two African-American teenagers, twin sisters, slugged balls back and forth to each other, scampering inside the baseline and around a cone between every shot, alternating with two other girls, the rally extending for a preposterous number of strokes — 20, then 30, then 60.
''Any idiot can hit a tennis ball,'' Murray yelled. ''Good players can hit it on the run.'' He told them the key was to whack the same quality groundstroke whether they were sprinting or tensing up during a 10-shot rally in a tiebreaker. ''Play every out ball,'' he ordered younger students on a second court. ''Learn how to cover an extra 1,000 square feet. That's Serena. Run it down! Make them try to hit it through you!''
Murray was 7 when he picked up tennis. It was a fluke: His parents needed to deposit him somewhere for the summer, and they heard about an all-day camp that cost only $12 for 8 weeks, hosted at the public courts near their South Side home. The son of a judge and a public-school assistant principal, Murray went on to become the de facto coach of his high-school team, recruiting promising players from local middle schools, and then attended Florida A&M on a tennis scholarship. The university later covered the expense of his M.B.A. while he served as an assistant coach. A onetime pharmaceutical marketing manager, he took over the tennis operation on 47th Street in 2008, renaming it XS Tennis — ''A play on 'excess,' greater than normal,'' he said. But every year since, the owners of the building have seemed on the brink of shutting it down. Murray began to sell the idea of a new facility on the South Side, one big enough to transform what tennis looked like in Chicago.
The city financed $2.9 million of the XS Tennis Village. ''It's going to be literally a college-scholarship production facility,'' Mayor Rahm Emanuel told me. Emanuel donated $5,000 of his own money and wheedled far larger sums out of his deep-pocketed friends. But, he said, he mostly got out of Murray's way when they were making the pitch: ''I'm his wingman,'' the mayor declared. In their pitches, Murray would marshal market studies and data sets, highlighting the work XS was already doing in 10 local public schools. He talked about the center's capacity to help lift up the long-beleaguered neighborhood. It would spur private investment and add to a cultural corridor being developed by the University of Chicago just beyond the school's traditional Hyde Park boundaries. Taylor Townsend, a teenage pro whom Murray coached on the tour for a couple of years, helped with fund-raising; having grown up playing on the South Side, she appeared as the fulfillment of the tennis village's dream.
There were doubters, of course. Some in the Chicago tennis community don't think anyone can fill 27 courts in a neighborhood still dominated by vacant lots, especially when tennis courts elsewhere remain empty and too many outsiders still think of the South Side as a place to avoid. Murray needs not only to raise an additional $3 million to complete the center; he will also have to keep the lights on and pay his staff while offering tennis at a price ''nontraditional'' tennis families can afford. At the groundbreaking for the facility in June, Bobby Rush, the 12-term congressman from the South Side, told the crowd of 200 that he initially opposed the project because he didn't like the idea of government land designated for public housing going to tennis players. But he said he was won over by Murray's passion and his vision. Alluding to Venus and Serena, Rush proclaimed, ''From Compton, California, to Chicago, Illinois, it's happening, and it's happening right now. We are going to dominate tennis.''
Two blocks from the old Hyde Park Racquet Club, at the edge of a city park, Tyrone Mason was feeding backhands to a trio of youngsters, commanding them to brush up on their swings to drive the ball with topspin. Weather permitting, Mason, 61, has presided at these same public courts most days for the past 25 years. Murray took some of his first lessons from Mason, and so did I. The courts represent much of what I think is great about tennis in the city. It's not that they're especially ideal in terms of playability. The overhanging branches of a tree extend over a baseline, interfering with service tosses on one side. There is often a clamor from Little League games, high-school-football practices or families that set up grills and sound systems on weekends. A bench nearby is a preferred roost of weed-smoking teenagers. And when Mason isn't around, dog walkers use the enclosed courts as a run. But all the distractions make the tennis feel as if it's part of the wider community, especially when contrasted with the snobby seclusion of the country club. Little kids press their faces against the fence, while adults stop to admire the play. Mason waves to drivers blowing their horns in greeting, and he speaks to most passers-by, whether he knows them or not. It's the Jane Jacobs urban ideal of the ''sidewalk ballet'' by way of the tennis court. Parents often see Mason's pupils hitting deep topspin shots and inquire about lessons for their own children.
Like tennis everywhere, black tennis in Chicago began as something a bit more genteel. In 1912, a group of prominent African-Americans in the city, many of them doctors and lawyers and businessmen, formed the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club. Blacks were barred from country clubs and, until the late 1940s, from official competition in what was then called the United States Lawn Tennis Association. Park-district leagues in Chicago weren't fully integrated until the 1960s. ''It wasn't the epitome of success to play tennis, but we wanted to be included in American life,'' Ron Mitchell, who has helped operate the Prairie club for the last 25 years, told me. In its early years, the group fielded challenges from black tennis associations on the South Side and elsewhere in the Midwest. It took part in an annual tri-city matchup among similar organizations in Cleveland and Detroit. The best players from Chicago went on to compete in contests held by the American Tennis Association, formed in 1916 as the corresponding national black tennis league. The first black player to claim a United States national title wasn't Althea Gibson, who won the U.S. Open in 1957, but Lorraine Williams, a 15-year-old Chicagoan affiliated with Prairie Tennis who took first place in a junior division four years earlier.
Mason was already out of high school when he touched a racket for the first time, in 1972. This was just four years after the beginning of the modern pro tennis era, as players without amateur status were finally allowed to compete in major tournaments. On the South Side and the North Side and all over Chicago, it suddenly seemed as if everyone were playing. The coach I trained with the longest, a smooth-swinging lefty named Waverly Hill, didn't hit a tennis ball until this same time, when he was in college. It was a revelation, he told me recently: ''I knew instantly it was the sport I should have played all along.'' Hill was soon spending most of his days at Tuley Park on 90th Street, competing against Mason and other fervid converts. Many of them got their professional starts teaching park-district tennis.
By the '80s, thanks to these adults who had fallen hard for the game, there was a large contingent of first-generation black junior tennis players. They formed a close community that proved strong enough to eclipse many of the divides of economics and access. Their parents car-pooled to tournaments and group lessons. One of the mothers' friends ran a tournament at a local park; someone's father hosted a camp elsewhere. ''It was such a great experience because it was such a family-oriented environment,'' Katrina Adams, the star of that cohort, told me this summer.
Like Murray, Adams first joined a tennis group in the park by her home the summer she turned 7. She continued to play that winter on a gym floor in a public-park field house. Eventually she was handed off to Chris Scott, the South Side's top coach, who was a Harlem Globetrotter for a decade before turning to tennis in his 30s. By the time Adams was a teenager and winning trophies, many of the adults from the local tennis scene were chipping in to help pay for her travel and her training. She earned a scholarship to Northwestern, went pro after her sophomore year and won 20 doubles titles over her career. She is now the first black president of the U.S.T.A.
There are 128 city parks in Chicago like the one where Tyrone Mason teaches. Although the courts at these sites are nowhere near as crowded as they were, say, 30 years ago, it's still common all over the South Side to see a lone teaching pro staked out with a basket of balls, maybe a folding chair courtside. That's not the robust tennis community that helped raise a Katrina Adams in Chicago, but so far it has sustained tennis on the South Side. The XS Tennis Village, a major year-round facility, might be able to do more. ''With grass-roots programs you're starting from nothing,'' Adams told me. ''Taylor Townsend started from nothing. I started from nothing. You don't know who you'll get until you get them into your sport and can develop them.''
In the living room of their Hyde Park condominium, Ray and Onjada Richardson explained that they were practitioners of what they called the ''Richard Williams strategy'' of tennis parenting. Two years before Venus was born, Williams chanced upon a women's tennis final on TV and saw a $40,000 check being presented to the winner. Although he had never swung a racket, let alone theorized about open-stance groundstrokes, Williams decided right then that he would have two daughters and, with a certainty and a level of detail that could only be seen as delusional if not for what came to pass, that he would raise them both to be tennis champions. Ray Richardson's similar epiphany occurred in 1997, while watching a 17-year-old Venus Williams play in her first U.S. Open final. Neither Ray nor Onjada were tennis players, and it would be another three years until the birth of their first child, but they believed that Venus and Serena, as black stars of the game, would serve as the perfect role models for their children-to-be. ''It's the looking-glass self: See yourself, see the possibilities,'' Onjada explained to me. (It's what Serena Williams wrote me she is most proud of: that she and her sister ''expanded the definition of who a tennis player can be. And the sport grew with us.'') The Richardsons' first child was a boy — Hugh — and Ray was determined not to let his plans be hijacked by football or basketball. ''That's just the experience of young African-American males,'' he said. He introduced tennis early: At 2, Hugh was taken to hit against a wall, and at 4 he began lessons with Mason in the park by their home. Tyra, three years younger, eventually followed her brother onto the court.
Hugh is now a wiry, 6-foot-3 15-year-old with size 15 shoes, his sinewy arms and legs a gyroscope of synchronized motion. At Dunbar Park, a few blocks from the stadium where the White Sox play, I watched him effortlessly crack practice serves — 110, 120 miles per hour, as fast as some pros — the balls a blur ricocheting off the back fence. Later, Hugh suddenly decided for no reason to spend 15 minutes of his practice switching his two-handed backhand to a one-hander, a shot he'd rarely hit before. And yet his form was perfect, his timing impeccable, 15 out of 15 shots exploding off his strings and falling a foot inside the far baseline.
Tyra, 12, is only slightly more than two racket-lengths tall, but already her volleys are crisp line drives or precisely carved angles. On her looping forehands, her racket is a whip of light, delivered with a grunt of intensity. ''Her potential is unlimited, especially if she grows,'' said her coach, Richy Gray, a former local junior who played in prize-money tournaments. In one drill, Gray sent her side to side, chasing balls, Tyra stretching as she swung on the full gallop. On every single shot, she somehow managed to anchor a back foot to transfer her weight and send force forward. Her strokes ending above her opposite ear, she finished these running shots like a gymnast nailing a dismount, with no extra steps or loss of balance, immediately able to send herself back in the opposite direction to track the next ball. Waverly Hill told me that when Tyra was 4, she hit 26 balls in a row with him. At 8, she finished third at a national tournament. She was preparing for the Girls' 12s national hard courts, a six-day event in suburban Atlanta; the previous week there was a conference call with national junior development coaches from the U.S.T.A.
As Tyra's national ranking has risen, so, too, have the family's concerns that geography will put her at an unfair disadvantage. Ray and Onjada work full-time, commuting to their jobs, and most of the group lessons with juniors of Tyra's caliber are held in the suburbs, easily an hour's drive each way in traffic. The better a player, the farther the tournaments (regionals, sectionals, nationals) and the greater the costs. While the Richardsons were excited that the new XS tennis center would basically be in their backyard, they knew it would open too late to help them navigate the critical next year or two in their children's development. Should they send the children away to a tennis academy, which can run $50,000 a year? They were by no means wealthy, and they estimated that tennis was already costing them $25,000 a year per child, which actually seems to be on the low end of the junior-tennis enterprise.
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'I want to inspire other
kids of color to play tennis.'
The U.S.T.A. once thought it could remedy the unequal distribution of tennis resources, and in that way develop the absolute best players, by inviting all the top juniors in the country to a national training center in Florida, free of charge. Taylor Townsend went to the association's training facility, as did Evan King, another African-American player from Chicago on the pro circuit. But the junior rankings are themselves hugely influenced by economics, favoring players who early on can afford the finest instruction and training and later who can get to all the far-flung tournaments that are necessary for both experience and ranking points.
The association has since discovered that its national training-center model can do more harm than good, because it requires that adolescents be removed from their families and friends and long-term coaches. ''Everything that we've learned not just from tennis but from other sports really shows that the great athletes in any sport develop close to home,'' Blackman of U.S.T.A. player development told me. ''They aren't shipped off to a centralized academy or federation when they're 13 or 14.'' Although the association is currently building a new 102-court training center near Orlando, Blackman said the national tennis body is also trying to fund players who stay home, offering grants for training, private lessons and travel. It has put together regional commissions of coaches that recommend potential champions who otherwise might not make it on to the U.S.T.A.'s radar. The more diverse the coaches in these commissions, Blackman said, the more diverse the players the association hears about.
On a Wednesday in July, I went with Kamau Murray and 75 of his campers to a pro tournament in suburban Winnetka, on Chicago's North Shore. The event was a Challenger, the circuit's second tier, with $50,000 in prize money split among all the participants, from the $7,200 allotted the singles winner to the $520 handed out to half the entrants for losing in the first round. The South Siders hoped to see 17-year-old Frances Tiafoe, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, who was the country's highest-ranked junior before going pro this spring. From a very early age, Tiafoe had trained at Maryland's Junior Tennis Championship Center, one of the country's pre-eminent tennis academies, because his father was a maintenance worker there. But Tiafoe lost the night before, 6-3, 6-1, in the first round. ''I want to be great — hopefully, I can be,'' he told me later in the day. ''I want to inspire other kids of color to play tennis.''
The XS campers instead watched a second-round match between a Texan named Mitchell Krueger and a burly Ukrainian named Illya Marchenko. Each man stood six feet behind the baseline, sending rolling forehands deep to the corners and backhand lasers down the line. Their styles were nearly identical, the margin between their tremendous shot-making abilities slight. The campers, some as young as 5, looked on in bewilderment at a game that, at least at this point, bore little resemblance to anything they had experienced. The 21-year-old Krueger, already three years on the tour, was able to hit a few more shots on the run than his opponent and pulled out a three-set win. By then the XS kids were gone, drawn away by the news that Murray was passing out tickets for the concession stands.
I joined them outside the stadium court, and Murray began to tell me how important it was for his students to see black professional players. In the same way that they followed the N.B.A.'s Stephen Curry or Derrick Rose, they needed to know that it was possible to start the tennis process and end up on the pro tour. Yet even players possessing all the athleticism and skill and desire, he said, still could be derailed. He offered up the experience of Taylor Townsend. At 15, while at the U.S.T.A. academy, Townsend won the 2012 Australian Open junior singles title. But later that year, the U.S.T.A. said it wouldn't pay for her travel to the U.S. Open or to any other tournaments until she lost weight. Never thin, Townsend was then the top-ranked junior in the world. Murray helped raise money for Townsend to play the Open. Townsend's family reached out to Zina Garrison, who struggled with bulimia when she played on the tour in the '80s and '90s. Murray and Garrison went on to jointly coach her for two years, though she is now back with her childhood coach, the father of Donald Young Jr. As blundering as the association's treatment of Townsend was, it seemed especially insensitive in light of all the talk of body type that swirls around black women in the game. ''One of the things that I don't want to happen is to find a champion on the South Side, tell them about all these great things the sport can do for them and they get to the point where the tennis community at large beats them down,'' Murray told me.
As we drove the hour back from the suburban tennis facility grand enough to host a professional tournament, Murray said he hoped the entire tennis community on the South Side would get behind the new XS village. ''We have a chance to create unprecedented access to tennis for minority kids in Chicago, and that access can lead to college scholarships,'' he explained. And he didn't see it merely as a Chicago endeavor, but a national collaborative one. The $26 million Cary Leeds Center for Tennis and Learning, with its free community tennis programs, opened in the Bronx earlier this year. Zina Garrison runs a tennis program in Houston. The next day, 40 children from the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, in D.C., would be in town, and Murray was taking them and his own campers on a college tour of Northwestern University. If the current inner-city tennis programs succeeded, he mused, then more like them might also get started in Cleveland, Detroit and Los Angeles. ''And then maybe I get to build another one on the West Side of Chicago too,'' he said, half-jokingly.
''The new tennis facility is really just the beginning,'' Murray said when we were back at the 47th Street club. ''It's really, like, Chapter 2.'' He nodded at the 35-year-old hangar of a building where we had spent so much of our childhoods. ''This is Chapter 1, and the tennis village is Chapter 2.''
''How many chapters will you write?'' I asked.
He didn't pause before answering. ''Ten,'' he said.