Katrina M. Adams —who has scored any number of firsts in her unprecedented two terms as chair and president of the United States Tennis Association — has always been poised at the net, on and off the tennis court.
When celebrities showed up in the President’s Suite at Arthur Ashe Stadium inappropriately dressed during the US Open, Adams was there not only to oversee hospitality but to tell them politely but firmly they’d have to adapt to the suit-and-tie, no-jeans, no-sneakers policy or leave. An apologetic Al Roker and son went in search of other footwear; a gracious Alex Rodriguez thanked Adams for her hospitality and vowed to return another day in something other than jeans. But Jerry Seinfeld raised a fuss and was relocated to a sponsor’s box and an unnamed mogul turned abusive to the staff. Protective of her team, Adams simply stood her ground.
As she writes in her new book, “Own the Arena: Getting Ahead, Making a Difference, and Succeeding as the Only One” (Amistad/HarperCollinsPublishers, $26.99, 272 pages), it wasn’t her first time in the hot seat. In her guise as chair of the International Tennis Federation Fed Cup Committee as well as chair and president of the White Plains-based USTA, Adams was the one who had to do extensive apologizing when the wrong version of the German national anthem was performed during opening round matches of the Fed Cup, the World Cup of women’s tennis, in 2017. (It was a version that had been used by the Nazis, and the hosting Americans hadn’t bothered to double-check it, a valuable lesson about the devil being in the details.)
In other moments, Adams has had to stand there smiling, waiting for others to do the right thing as when John McEnroe took it upon himself to present the trophy to the 2018 US Open men’s singles champion, Novak Djokovic, instead of handing it to Adams, as previously discussed. Stepping into the breach in etiquette, Djokovic accepted the trophy, then walked over to Adams and kissed her on both cheeks, thanking her for her years of service “with an amused twinkle in his eye. He’d made it seem to the millions of viewers and spectators in the stands like it was all part of the plan. Crisis averted.”
By then Adams had already had enough controversy for one Open. A day earlier, the tennis world collided with social media as Serena Williams lost first her cool — when umpire Carlos Ramos penalized her for allegedly receiving help in the stands from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou — and then the women’s final to Naomi Osaka before a raucous crowd that was pulling for Williams to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slam championships. Social media quickly split into team Serena and team Naomi and decided that Adams’ remarks at the trophy presentation were a little too team Serena for an impartial official — an irony given that as an African-American, Adams has long advocated for diversity and women of color like Williams and Osaka. So, more apologies, clarifications and in particular outreach to Osaka to make sure that she understood how happy Adams was for her.
It’s not surprising that Adams should open her book with this explosive incident. At once balletic and psychologically brutal, tennis is a highly formal, highly individualistic sport in which the majority of players, Adams observes, lose most of the time and fans read whole relationships into a handshake or hug at the net. (In the Covid era, players tap their rackets to acknowledge one another.)
“Tennis is a preparatory sport for becoming who you are,” Adams writes. “It builds character and resilience both inside and outside the sport. It teaches us what it means to have a good loss that helps us to develop smarter strategies for the next match, along with the endurance and persistence that come from repeatedly falling on your face.”
Because it requires so much inner direction, it can also teach you about leading yourself and others — crucial at a time when the coronavirus has tested our concept of leadership.
“My parents were my first leaders,” Adams, a Yonkers resident, says in a recent phone interview. “They were teachers.”
Chicago educators, James and Yvonne Adams were supportive, if not demonstrative parents who sacrificed much to afford the lessons, coaching and tournaments for a sport in which their daughter would soon outstrip her older brothers. Participating in the police-sponsored tennis program at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys Club in Garfield Park and educated at St. Mel Holy Ghost and Whitney M. Young High School, whose alumni include Michelle Obama, Adams would star at Northwestern University in 1986-87 when she helped the Wildcats to a Big Ten Conference Championship, was named Intercollegiate Tennis Association Rookie of the Year and became the first African-American to win the NCAA doubles title.
She left Northwestern to turn pro, ranking as high as No. 67 in singles and No. 8 in doubles on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour and turning to coaching and commentating when her playing career ended. But where she has really stood out is in a leadership role, joining the USTA board of directors in 2005 and rising from vice president of the nonprofit to first vice president to president and chair, becoming the first African-American, first former professional player and youngest person to serve as USTA president and chair.
Her oversight has ranged from infrastructure (the transformation of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, the opening of the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida); to outreach, particularly in underserved Latino communities. Among her proudest accomplishments was working with Billie Jean King to create a memorial to one of their “sheroes” — Althea Gibson, the Jackie Robinson of tennis — in the form of Eric Goulder’s granite sculpture of the woman who broke tennis’ color barrier in the 1950s.
Today, Adams says, there are 13 Black women in the WTA’s main draw — one facet of her mantra, to embrace all.
Katrina M. Adams’ 12 Match Points for Life
1. Own the table. There’s a reason you have a seat there.
2. Own your legacy. Set an example.
3. Own your courage. Be bold, standing on the shoulders of those who came before.
4. Own your identity. Celebrate your background – and those of others.
5. Own your choices. Trust that you’ve made the right ones.
6. Own your network. Surround yourself with those who can help.
7. Own your village. Surround yourself with family and friends who can go on the journey with you.
8. Own your voice. Don’t be afraid to speak out.
9. Own your success.
10. Own your failures. Loss is part of succeeding.
11. Own your obligations. Reach out to pull others up.
12. Own the possibilities. Don’t fear the path ahead.