Illustrated sports and Empower Onyx spotlight the diverse journeys of black women through sports – from veteran athletes to rising stars, coaches, executives and more – in the series, Elle-evate: 100 influential black women in sports.
The only daughter and the youngest of three siblings in her family, Katrina Adams grew up in the South Chicago neighborhood in a tight-knit neighborhood during a time of the 1980s when gangs were on the rise.
“I think we lived between the Vice Lords and the Disciples,” said Adams, 53. “So I was pretty safe and was driven to school until I was probably a junior in high school.”
Sports had been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. Her father was a fanatic who watched football, basketball, and baseball every weekend, and she played various sports with her family, but not tennis. At least not until she was introduced to the game at the age of six. “It was kind of something that I really liked from the first time I hit the ball,” she says.
Fast forward to today, and Adams has ticked off almost every role in the tennis world, from a young player in a downtown program, to the pro level, to national coach, to commentator, up to ‘following C.. After competing for 12 years on the WTA Tour, winning 20 career doubles titles, Adams eventually became president, CEO of the United States Tennis Association for two consecutive terms from 2015 to 2018.
Adams calls her innovative career path unconventional, and it’s true: she is the first former professional tennis player to lead the USTA and the only black woman to ever hold this role in the organization’s history. . This is quite in contrast to the start of her journey, where she was teased to be the sport’s poster child because she became a notable product of the USTA’s grassroots programs through the country. “Each summer they had a different activity,” says Adams of the Dr. Martin Luther King Boys & Girls Club of Chicago. “That summer was tennis.”
A few instructors saw potential in her, and soon she took private lessons and participated in another weekend indoor program at Washington Park in Chicago. “It was on a basketball court with a bunch of lines for basketball, tennis, volleyball – name it, every line was there,” she says. As Adams designed her game, she joined more advanced programs where she could compete with older athletes. “I beat the big guys. I was very competitive from a young age, ”she says.
Adams didn’t need sports to boost his self-esteem. She likes to say that she was “born like this”, overflowing with confidence. “I was outgoing,” she says. “I always knew it all, and I told you I knew it all.” Her confidence propelled her to new heights in tennis – she then played at Northwestern University, where she won the NCAA doubles title with Diane Donnelly in 1987, before turning pro.
“I needed all that confidence to be able to compete,” she says. “The more I played, the more confident I became, not only as a tennis player, but also in myself and my ability to be able to take risks and try something out of the ordinary, for my community. And then excel and be good at it.
During her coaching career, she worked with some of the top performing junior players who were making the transition to the pros. After about four and a half years, Adams made the jump to the stand, working as an analyst for the Tennis Channel. She then became the Executive Director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, which is part of the National Junior Tennis and Learning Network, co-founded by Arthur Ashe in 1969.
“Our program started in 1972,” says Adams, who never saw himself as a sports executive. “I started at the age of 35 and I’m still there today, I love every minute. We will be celebrating our 50th anniversary next year.
Adams says the Harlem program is where she really learned to run a business. From finances to legal jargon, to working with board members, everything prepared her for her role at USTA. Her leadership has passed from court to business, and her innovation and creativity are the result, she says, of her parents investing in her from an early age.
“I started to perfect [my skills] and I brought them with me in the next chapter, ”she said. “Being tactical, as they call it in sport, or changing your strategy, collaborating and communicating are all ways to be creative.”
Today, volunteering keeps Adams busy. She is vice-president of the International Tennis Federation, based in London; the president of the Gender Equality and Tennis Commission; and committee chairman Billie Jean King Cup, formerly known as the Fed Cup.
“I juggle a lot of different departments,” she says. “And I do all of this because I love it.”
Bryna Jean-Marie is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse, multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sport for black women and girls.