Since childhood, Katrina Adams has always been a trailblazer, a role that requires ample doses of courage and sensitivity.
Inside the lines, over the course of a 12-year-pro career, Adams attained a career-high ranking of 67 in singles, including a round of 16 run at Wimbledon. In doubles, she won 20 titles, advanced to the quarterfinals or better at all four majors and was ranked as high as number eight in the world.
Outside the lines, Adams has also been very successful, working as a coach, broadcaster, executive director of a non-profit and USTA chair, president and CEO. At the USTA, Adams was the first Black and the youngest person ever to hold those leadership positions—serving an unprecedented two consecutive terms from 2015-2018.
The lessons gained from Adams’ many experiences on and off the court form the basis of her newly released book, Own The Arena: Getting Ahead, Making a Difference, and Succeeding as the Only One.
Adams and I spoke on the book’s launch date, February 23, just hours after she’d made a national TV appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Assessing the book’s meaning, Adams told me, “I would like people to know that they have a hand in controlling their own destiny.”
In Adams’ case, her destiny begins with a strong awareness of social obligation.
“Particularly as an African American who has been the first and only in many situations,” writes Adams, “I feel it’s my duty to reach back and bring the next one forward. I was once that inner-city child with a dream, having no idea how to achieve it other than through working hard and enjoying the process. It took a village to raise me, support me, uplift me, and allow me to shine.”
It’s also quite helpful to understand that Adams is a net-rusher. As she writes, “going to the net requires you to see what’s happening in all areas of the court. You can’t hold back. You need to be fully immersed in the moment and hyperaware of all that’s going on around you, staying in constant forward motion, with the ability to stop on a dime and pivot in the direction that the ball is moving.”
The scenario that opens the book fully reveals Adams’ many skills: when she presided over the 2018 US Open awards ceremony following that year’s women’s singles final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. Amid an extremely loud crowd and public uncertainty about a series of steps taken by the officials, it fell to Adams to bring tranquility; both in the moment, and, soon after, explain the day’s events to a confused world.
Adams delivers a thorough account of the events of that day and the aftermath. Exploring what happened from many angles—including the USTA, the players, the officials, the media, as well as her own actions and feelings—Adams’ detailed explanation is the gold standard.
The book cites many more instances where Adams demonstrated her leadership skills, from the quest to greatly improve the quality of sportsmanship among American junior tennis players to the reform of Davis Cup.
Those kind of vivid experiences provide the detail for what Adams calls “12 Match Points,” subtitled “For Ways To Thrive When You’re The Only One.” Beginning with “Own the table,” Adams’ principles cover legacy, courage, identity, choices, network, village, voice, successes, losses, obligation and possibilities. The spirit of personal accountability is strong here; wisdom no doubt reinforced by a life spent competing in a sport with a strong emphasis on self-reliance.
But Adams is no solo act. Own the Arena frequently cites the power of collaboration, Adams generously acknowledging a great many who have aided her. This wide range of mentors includes coaches Tony Fox, Chris Scott, Rod Schroeder, Willis Thomas; tennis legends such as Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King, longstanding WTA executive Peachy Kellmeyer and USTA president Alan Schwartz; as well as former New York City Mayor Dave Dinkins. Those are only a few Adams shares appreciation for throughout the book.
Most of all, Adams is grateful to her parents, James and Yvonne. As she told me, “I was very fortunate. I had two parents who supported me. They were teachers. They were hard workers. They were children of farmers. They went to college in Mississippi in the ‘50s and then headed north. You can only imagine the experiences they had. Compared to what they went through, my life as a child was gravy. So it was very important for me to honor them and always strive to be the best that I could be.”
One interesting twist in this book’s journey was that it was completed in early 2020, just at the beginning of the worldwide pandemic. Adams was diagnosed with COVID-19 in the spring, but recovered and became among the first to donate her plasma. But in our conversation, Adams’ personal challenge with COVID-19 hardly mattered in comparison to her concern about broader social issues. “I would say that being the only one is probably magnified that much more when you look at movements like Black Lives Matter,” she said.
Adams is currently exploring a wide range of options with corporations and non-profits, both inside and outside the tennis world. She continues as executive director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program and is an ITF Vice President. In 2018, Adams was named Chairman of the ITF Gender Equality in Tennis Committee. Adweek and Forbes have both named her one of the “Most Powerful Women in Sports.” One future possibility: Chairman of the ITF (its next election will be in late 2023).
No matter what path Adams next takes, the lessons and principles she’s articulated in this book will surface. “Fair play, honor, and respect translate directly to many other arenas of life and business,” Adams writes. “How you conduct yourself toward others both on and off the court defines your brand. An integral part of this is cultivating an inclusive and open attitude. Being aware of diverse perspectives, respecting differences, and treating each other fairly in every situation elevates your game.”
Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.
To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).