In 2015, Kamau Murray, a full-time pharmaceuticals salesman for Novo Nordisk who founded XS Tennis -- a program targeting underserved youth in Chicago -- brought 40 of his students to the US Open to meet with various officials, according to the New York Times. Murray had previously served as co-coach of pro Taylor Townsend, who was one of the first five players in his XS Tennis program at its inception. The former Florida A&M student-athlete introduced his students to a player named Sloane Stephens, who lost in the first round of the Open that year.
That November, Murray began coaching Stephens. Murray would later quit his pharmaceutical sales job to focus on coaching his young charge, and less than two years later, he found himself embracing Stephens after she won her first Grand Slam title at the 2017 US Open.
USOpen.org caught up with Murray just a couple of hours after Stephens' win for an exclusive interview about his charge:
USOpen.org: How does it feel knowing that Sloane won the US Open?
Kamau Murray: I’m happy for her. I’m grateful that she gave me the opportunity to work with her back in November of ‘15. 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.
USOpen.org: Sloane has gone through some tough times, especially physically. Was there a moment at which you worried that maybe this day would never come?
Kamau Murray: No. I think that when we started a while ago, I had never actually watched her play. I didn’t come to the relationship with any preconceived notions about anything that everybody else keeps asking about. I knew from the first couple days, after the first week or two of practice, I said to her mom, ‘Here’s what I see, and here's what I think here’s what the possibilities are.’ A Grand Slam was definitely a possibility. I don’t know that I can say I thought it would happen this soon, especially when you take an 11-month break. But from a talent perspective, she definitely has the talent to do this. No one ever doubted that, but I think that there are just a bunch of other pieces that needed to come together. Credit to her for being open. 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.
USOpen.org: Sloane let you help her. What do you think your greatest accomplishment has been with her?
Kamau Murray: Aside from helping her win a Grand Slam (laughs)? I think she is a much better person now. I think that I helped her become more of herself. She was always tough, I think. But I think I helped her be okay with looking vulnerable. From a focus standpoint, we worked a lot on being able to play a match from start to finish. From a technical standpoint we worked on several shots in her game and cleaned up some things that were just liabilities and from a communications standpoint, I believe she’s a much better communicator now from a player-coach type of relationship then she was back in November when I met her.
USOpen.org: As you’re sitting in her box before Sloane won the final point and with it the US Open, what was going through your mind?
Kamau Murray: I think that Sloane won the first set every match this tournament and there were several matches when she lost the second set. So there’s never really a point when you can rest. So I think that for that one, that particular point, it was like ‘Okay we need to go, we need to go now. You need to keep pushing. Keep pushing. Don’t relax,’ because there were some matches when I think she sort of backed off a little bit in the second set and I was just sort of trying to urge her on to just stay focused, stay forward, keep playing....My favorite part of that match was the look afterwards when she put her hands on her hips and she was like looking at me and just like, ‘Oh my god.' That was my favorite part. That was my favorite part of the tournament, that look.
USOpen.org: Is that look going to be the one image in your mind that you take out of this whole experience?
Kamau Murray: Absolutely. If I had to verbalize what I think she was thinking, it wouls be ‘All those days, sitting with you on a court in a chair and a boot with your boring me to death, tossing me a ball.... I trusted the process and you were right.’ That’s what I thought the look meant (laughs). But I’m happy for her. She deserves it. I can honestly say she put the work in, she was open, and she did everything that was asked of her for the past year and a half. And because of that, she’s here.