Katrina Adams: The Importance of Making a Difference
Throughout Black History Month, USTA.com is featuring a series of first-person essays from prominent Black voices in the tennis world. This week, former USTA President Katrina Adams, who for 12 years was one of the top doubles’ talents on the WTA Tour and has enjoyed successful careers as both a coach and TV commentator, reflects on her on- and off-court experiences in the sport, and pays homage to those who have helped her navigate her journey. Adams’ first book, “Own the Arena,” published by Harper Collins, Amistad Books, is available on Feb. 23.
For the better part of my life, I’ve known what it feels like to be the only one. As both a professional tennis player and in my post-playing career as an executive in the sport, I have—more times than I can count—found myself in positions and places where I am the only person of color. It’s hard not to notice that, and you can do one of two things with it. You can let it intimidate you and take you down a negative path, or you can use it to energize yourself and make sure that wherever you are, you make the sort of powerful impression that not only shows you in a dynamic light, but just might help to open a few minds and a few doors for others who look like you. I’ve always chosen to do the latter.
You know, it’s funny; I never really thought of tennis as a “white” sport until I was a couple of years into it. I started at a local program a couple of blocks away from where we lived in Chicago, which was a predominantly Black community. Everyone there was Black—kids and coaches alike. The coach who took me under his wing when he saw I showed some promise was Black, and he then took me to another all-Black program. The local tournaments I played in my community were all Black. And the first national tournament I played in was the ATA nationals; again, all-Black.
It wasn’t until I started to play in Chicago District Tennis Association programs that my surroundings changed drastically, and I found myself as the only Black player. All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Wow; where is everybody?”
That was something of a stark realization, but I must say that I was fortunate as a junior player in that I never really had to deal with blatant racism. My peers and my opponents were my friends; they respected me just as I respected them. If there was ever any negativity toward me, my dad shielded me from it. The only time I ever felt even slightly uncomfortable in juniors was when I played a National in Birmingham, Ala., at a country club where there were no Black members. The only Black faces there were of those who worked at the club.
At first, my parents weren’t going to let me play there, but they eventually relented. I can still recall walking in the front gate of that club, oblivious to everything, just bopping in with my racquets and my dad walking tall and looking straight ahead. I didn’t win that tournament, but I think I made an impression anyway. I remember all of the Black people who worked there literally stopped what they were doing to watch this young Black girl walking into that club like she belonged. I like to think that they remember that too.
When I first came onto the WTA Tour in 1988, there were just a handful of black women pros, including Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, and Camille Benjamin. I was most fortunate to have both Zina and the great Billie Jean King as mentors—two women who truly helped to light my path toward success. If you want to talk about women of achievement, about a champion of a sport and of myriad causes, you can’t do much better that Billie Jean King.
Billie was my sage in sneakers, a caring voice and a guiding hand who never once told me what to do, but who always encouraged me to think for myself. I looked up to her, and just as important, she never looked down on me. Right from the start, she made me feel like I belonged. She encouraged my progress—as a player and as a person. She was unobtrusive but always available; a guiding light that you just knew would never run out of fuel….
And Zina, well…. Zina was special. She took me under her wing and really taught me what it meant to be a professional, how to carry myself and deal with the countless scenarios that play out when you’re chasing a yellow ball around the globe. We played doubles together, roomed together, and shared a coach—the great Willis Thomas. She provided a cultural familiarity for me. It wasn’t that I was homesick or anything, but as you get older, you start to realize what’s missing or what’s different. Zina helped to keep things real.
Zina helped me to find myself and focus on the important things, not only my tennis game but also those things that help to make a life off the court. Though I had to make my own choices, as we had two totally different personalities, she always shared what her obstacles were, hoping that I could avoid them.
And, of course, we won a whole lot of doubles titles together, so that was pretty cool too…
Zina’s experience growing up in Houston was very different than mine growing up in Chicago. She faced a lot of racism as a girl and early on in her career. I wouldn’t say that I was oblivious to it, but Zina and Willis really emphasized to me what it meant to be Black out on the tour. They helped open my eyes to a lot of things; they provided a voice of experience and kept me grounded in a lot of situations. Globally, racism is a lot different than it is in America, but it exists in various degrees nonetheless. Zina and Willis helped me always to be mindful of my surroundings and helped me to appreciate not only the many challenges but also the many responsibilities that went along with being a Black player.
So when I was walking off the court toward the locker room, dripping in sweat, with my ID in my racquet bag, and I got stopped by the guard at the door while my white opponent just walked in ahead of me without getting checked, I never created a scene. But I always made a mental note of it. I knew it was, at the very least, disrespectful, but I would tuck it away, catalog it, and try to learn from it. Every one of those experiences made me smarter, made me tougher, and made me more determined to change the way things were.
Billie always said pressure is a privilege, and she always said that we as players needed to give back to the game. Especially as a Black player, I always took that to heart. I always participated in sponsor events and things of that nature. Whether I was playing the first match the next day or not, I always showed up, trying to look my best. I’m not sure I understood at the time how important or impactful that was. But especially if I was the only Black player in the draw that week, I wasn’t going to be the Black player who didn’t show up. I knew I had a responsibility to the tournament and to the tour, but more, I knew I had a responsibility to myself and to others like me. I’ve always wanted to stand out with my presence; I didn’t want to stand out with by absence.
I got involved in WTA Player’s Association early on in my career, and joined the Board in my second year because I really wanted to understand the inner workings of the game and help it evolve. I always wanted to make sure that the image of the Black athlete was prevalent, and that we were responsible and knowledgeable and had impact—not just on the court but off the court as well.
When I left the tour, I was asked to be a USTA National Coach, and I have to say that was one of the most rewarding times of my life, as I got the chance to work not only with several of our top pros but also with an amazing group of young Black players. For me, that was like coming full circle. I thought of the coaches who helped to bring me along as a player, and I really reveled in the opportunity to help these young budding professionals to realize their potential as well.
That’s the same ideal that has driven me in my role as Executive Director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program; a position I’ve held now for 15 years. When I was on the tour, I was aware of the program, because during the US Open, I’d given clinics there. I knew about the facility, and I knew that Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson and every Black player of note between them and after them had hit on those courts.
So when they asked me to take over as Executive Director, I couldn’t refuse. For me, it reminded me of the program that I’d grown up in in Chicago. In these young faces, I saw a reflection of myself, and I saw this as an opportunity to give back, just as so many had given back to me. Through my years there, I have seen hundreds of kids turn their sad stories into success stories. Being part of that has really touched my soul, because that’s who I was—and to some extent, who I still am. I’m proud that I’ve played a part in changing their trajectory, because I feel like I’m paying it forward for those who helped to change mine. I’ve always seen that as both a privilege and a responsibility.
And those are exactly the words that I would use to describe my time as USTA President and Chair. I was honored to be the first African-American, the first former professional athlete and the youngest person ever to preside over the association. That was indeed a privilege and a milestone moment for both myself and for the association. But more, I felt an immense sense of responsibility, to utilize what is one of the highest-visibility platforms in tennis to do all that I could to try to level the playing field for everyone, and give more people an opportunity to realize their dreams and goals through our great sport. My coaches, my parents, Billie, Zina, Willis—they all would expect that of me. I know I always expected it of myself.
And so, armed with all of the experiences of my past, I dedicated myself to using my platform to make a difference. I always wanted to have a presence in the grass-roots arena. I wanted to be the picture of possibilities; to enlighten and encourage others to follow their dreams—because I was an example of what they could accomplish with a little self-belief and a hand to help. I tried to be that hand as much as I could; and I tried to encourage others to extend their hands as well.
I’d make a point to stop and visit a local NJTL in every city that I went to. I wanted to see the kids and meet the coaches. I wanted those kids to see me and know that they could accomplish the things that I’d accomplished. I always loved doing that, and if I had one day open in my calendar a week and someone reached out and asked if I’d come and speak—I did. Again, it was a privilege—and a responsibility. I wanted to be visible because I felt that I might be able to inspire. I always felt that if you can see it, you can believe it, and I’ve always wanted to help people believe.
No one ever experiences true success alone. Through every phase of my life, in all of my various careers—as a player, coach, commentator, executive, and now author, I have wanted to use my platform to be a voice for others; to help pass the baton of success. That’s always been important to me because if it hadn’t been for other people reaching back and bringing me forward, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Through every step of my journey, someone helped me; someone gave me their shoulders to stand on.
Especially in those moments where I know that I’m the only one, I get strength from the realization that others like me helped to get me here. I know that they still count on me to make them proud, and I know that there are others behind me who count on me to get them here. They still count on me to help make a difference.
I long ago promised myself never to let any of them down.