Trailblazer: Katrina Adams, the USTA's First-Ever African-American President, is Breaking Molds and Making Waves

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By Bill Simons

In the 134-year history of the USTA, no one under 50 has ever been president.

No athlete, let alone a broadcaster, has ever headed the organization.

And in a sport that has given us Serena, Venus, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, James Blake, Zina Garrison and Michael Chang, no person of color has led the group.

Enter Katrina Adams, the USTA’s new chief. Lean, energetic, Chicago-tough, long a hero of Harlem tennis, Adams is just 46, a Tennis Channel commentator, a former top 10 doubles player with 20 title wins and—yeah, we almost forgot—African-American.

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Long ago, Arthur Ashe said the greatest fear of the whites who then ruled tennis was that if African-Americans came into the sport, black culture would take over the game.

Now, African-Americans are impacting tennis like never before.

Observers now ask, what’s more stunning? That Madison Keys may be the most dazzling young prospect in the game? That Aussie Open champ Serena, who some consider the best of all time, returned to Indian Wells? That her sister Venus, 34, is having an impressive late-career surge? That the mercurial Sloane Stephens is rising once again? That Taylor Townsend and Tornado Black may be on the horizon? Or that an African-American is heading the USTA?

Then again, Adams has an inner drive like few others. As a kid she saw Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon on TV and promptly informed her parents she would play there one day.

She did that and much more.

Adams concedes that at first she didn’t really grasp it all. “I was just a kid who loved to compete,” she tells IT. “It was about winning trophies. I didn’t understand what the path [to Wimbledon] was.”

Adams played with what she herself calls “a bully personality.” She says what she loved most about tennis was “the joy of hitting the ball,” and being on court “where your personality can truly shine … [Tennis] teaches you discipline, how to sacrifice … and do all the things you need to do to succeed, whether it’s being a journalist, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or on Wall Street. It doesn’t matter. Each step along the way, I just sort of followed the path.

“For me [being the USTA President] is about having a moment to truly make a difference, and understanding what that means … Bill, I’m not here because of my differences, I’m here in spite of them, and because of what I bring to the table and the ability I have to reach millions. I happen to be African-American, which is great, and it’s an honor to be the first. I know it resonates across the country and the world. But I didn’t go after this job because of that.

“Becoming the USTA president has been humbling, and I hope I can have an impact. This is about letting people know that if you work hard you can do anything.”

Anyone who rises to become the president of the USTA has to go through a kind of self-regulating (“rebels need not apply”) process. Aspiring leaders have to navigate a daunting political gauntlet that takes years. Loyalty matters. It’s best not to rock the boat.

So, during my wide-ranging interview with Adams in the Australian Open player cafeteria, it’s not surprising that she drops few bombshells. Rather, she adeptly volleys any questions about the USTA’s oft-criticized governance, at one point serving up the observation, “We have a junior competitive structure that isn’t perfect.” Then she goes cross-court, noting that the USTA is “impacting millions” through all of its programs.

“For me to sit in the seat I’m sitting in,” she notes, “means we’ve evolved. It’s more about truly embracing diversity and inclusion … People don’t realize all the good that we do in giving back to the grassroots. It’s because of those opportunities that more kids are introduced to tennis, and most of those programs involve education. That’s where most of our money goes—to get people from all socioeconomic backgrounds involved. It’s about opening doors in a sport that has been criticized as being just for the elite.”

Point well taken, Katrina. But not only is USTA membership declining, no American man has won a Slam title in 12 years.

“Everything in life is cyclical,” notes Adams. “We are at a stage in American tennis where it’s turning around for us to be on the upswing again in numbers. We have a ton of players that are coming up—the [Stefan] Kozlovs, the [Noah] Rubins, the [Francis] Tiafoes, the [Michael] Mmohs—and starting to make a splash … [Still,] we need to promote the sport better, as opposed to promoting individuals. If we can get tennis out there for kids to see … they’ll get more excited … [But] kids aren’t even introduced to physical activity anymore. When your parents say, ‘Go out and play,’ and you’re sitting on your couch, you say, “I am playing—why do I need to go outside?” We need to … get kids to understand, ‘Hey, there’s another activity you can do beyond your iPad or your Xbox … There are pockets of people we haven’t [reached]. It’s just because of messaging. We can turn that around.”

In particular, Adams wants to get Latinos involved. After all, she notes, “these communities love sports. The first sport they love is soccer. They’re great athletes. But tennis is a great sport to help you develop your individuality, self-confidence, and character, and it provides opportunities … As a culture, tennis can go in and embrace the entire family.”

The USTA has had many an innovative president. Slew Hester and David Markin built stadiums. Throngs descended. Judy Levering was the first woman president. Alan Schwartz was the first tennis businessman to be prez. But no other USTA chief has been as much of a pioneer as Adams—or as enmeshed in the tennis family.

As we chat in Melbourne, friends and players drop by. Adams has been gaining standing ovations at conferences and is already attracting heady accolades.

Though originally inspired by Ashe, she says that if she could watch any one player perform it would be the legendary pioneer Althea Gibson: “I was a serve and volleyer, I was aggressive, and that’s what I saw in Althea’s game. It was about power, grace and taking no prisoners.”

Adams goes on to share how Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison “took me under her wing,” how her parents and the visionary Billie Jean King were the most influential and inspirational people in her life, and that she’s been able to walk the path she’s walked because of King. Adams delights in talking about more humble players in the tennis firmament like Camille Benjamin and Chanda Rubin, and then alights into an appreciation of the mighty Venus and Serena.

“To watch them mature over the years,” she says, “has just been incredible. I don’t think the world recognizes how much pressure was on those young kids who were in an adult world. Venus has been an incredible spokeswoman … It really shows that perseverance is everything … They’ve gotten it right a lot of times, and they’ll continue to get it right. They’ve definitely learned.”

In that context, I say to Adams, “Let me ask you a tough question. We have this fabulous tournament in Indian Wells. But our two most wonderful American stars are not playing. If there was some way we could get the parties together, and they could play again, it would be a real symbol of…”

“But what parties?” she asks.

“Venus and Serena, and the tournament,” I respond.

“It has nothing to do with the tournament,” Adams says, with an edge in her voice. “It has to do with the environment. What they experienced was unfair to them, it was unethical, it was racist, and it was an unfortunate situation. If you are a 19-year-old [like Serena], you’re [barely] an adult. And even if you are an adult and you experience that, you wouldn’t want to go back to the area either. And guess what? I do experience it. But I do what I gotta do. That’s the way of the world. But they don’t have to subject themselves to that treatment. I know they’ve matured and they’ve gotten over it and they said they would go back. We’ll see.”

And we’ll see about Katrina. Will she not only be a role model and a pioneer—the youngest-ever USTA President; the first pro athlete, commentator and African-American to lead the USTA—but also a “doer” who rocks the conversation and changes the game?

More photos of USTA President Katrina Adams after the jump.