CHICAGO PRIMER – As the Laver Cup Begins in Chicago, Here’s a Primer on the Second City

Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images for Laver Cup

In his book “Never Come Morning,” Nelson Algren captures the spirit of Chicago, writing, “The great trains howling from track to track all night. The taut and telegraphic murmur of ten thousand city wires, drawn most cruelly against a city sky. The rush of city waters, beneath the city streets. The passionate passing of the night’s last El.”

Former President Obama was rather more succinct, saying, “Let me tell you something, I’m from Chicago. I don’t break.”

Chicago’s a tough town – mean streets, cold winters, great culture, the timeless Cubbies. When you think about trendy American tennis regions, Florida or California come to mind, not the Windy City. But with the Laver Cup coming to Chicago and Chicago-born Katrina Adams about to leave office as President of the USTA, here’s a little primer on the Second City.

Kamau Murray, the coach of former US Open champ Sloane Stephens, has a successful Chicago academy which was a key in Stephens’ career surge.

Mike Agassi and Richard Williams – the two fathers who plotted more than any others to have their kids become tennis champions – have curious, though brief, Chicago connections.

Andre Agassi‘s dad Michael was a lost kid in Tehran, Iran—a failed Olympic boxer who lived in wretched conditions, one of 13 family members cramped close in an apartment and sharing a single bathroom. No wonder he dreamed of America, migrating to Chicago. He became an elevator operator and met his wife before heading out to far warmer climates in LA and eventually Vegas.

Richard Williams’ path was uncannily similar. Facing unvarnished racism in Shreveport, Louisiana (think: humiliation, brutal beatings, grinding poverty, and no pathways to significant success) Williams saw Chicago as his out, a dream destination where African-Americans had real jobs, homes that didn’t leak, and weren’t brutalized.

Williams hopped a freight train north and thought he’d arrived in heaven. African-Americans had cars, money, and could go to libraries. They didn’t beat you up for reading, like Williams said they did in Shreveport. He soon got a series of entry-level jobs and his own apartment.

But he became deeply disillusioned. It wasn’t that he was colder than he had ever been. After confrontations with the police, he came to feel that Chicago “was far worse [than the South].” He felt the best things were just as inaccessible to black people as they had been back home. “Maybe it was worse, because we were told they were within our reach…In Shreveport, we could always steal a chicken or pull food from the ground.” After yet another daunting run-in with the police, Williams told himself, “Even death was better than living another day in fear.”

So just like Mike Agassi, Williams left Chicago for LA, where he came up with his audacious plan to raise two daughters who would win a lot of money and change the game.

• WTA pro Taylor Townsend is a lot like her hometown: tough, charming, charismatic, singular, and a tad defiant. After the hot-tempered Russian Anastasia Rodionova gave her a hard time, she confided, “Lord Jesus thank you for giving me the strength to not go South Side of Chicago on that girl.”

Donald Young is another lefty African-American who grew up in Chicago before heading off to Georgia. He and his family are close to Taylor Townsend. He told IT about his early years in the city, saying, “That’s where the foundation was laid for my tennis…I was there from birth to 14. Most of my tennis and strokes and learning were there. Being from there is awesome. The weather, I don’t miss. The people, I do. Chicago is a great city…I have a lot of fond memories. I played at Hyde Park Athletic Club and at Midtown. They were so nice to give me a scholarship and let me play there, because I couldn’t afford it…Alan Schwartz was great. My parents worked at Hyde Park, so I was able to get free court time there.”

• Versatile Katrina Adams is one of the most significant USTA presidents. Chicago-born, she won the NCAA doubles championship, climbed to No. 67 in the world in singles, reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, and won 20 doubles crowns with Townsend’s coach, Garrison. For years, she headed the Harlem Junior Tennis League and was a Tennis Channel commentator. Adams is the first African-American USTA president.

• Speaking of stars, Chicago entrepreneur Alan Schwartz not only founded a key Chicago club, he was the first person to emerge from the tennis industry to become president of the USTA.

• In 1897, five courts were built in Lincoln Park…Wilson, a storied tennis company, is based in Chicago…Chicago’s Andrea Jaeger turned pro at 14, reached No. 2 in the world at age 16, and eventually became a nun…Marty Riessen was a high school and Northwestern University standout, before winning six singles titles on the tour. He gained a No. 11 ranking and teamed with Margaret Court to win many of his nine Grand Slam titles…Chris Evert‘s tennis teaching dad Jimmy was born and raised in Chicago…Long ago, the US Clay Court Championships in suburban River Forest were a mainstay of the summer clay court circuit…Hall of Famers Frankie Parker and George Lott lived in the city and Lott was the long time coach at DePaul…Hyde Park’s Michelle Obama loves tennis.


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