Katrina Adams never envisioned being a trailblazer. Yet she’s had a lot of firsts in her career. Adams is the first Black commentator on the Tennis Channel and served as president, chairman, and CEO of the United States Tennis Association for an unprecedented two consecutive terms from 2015-2018. She also won 20 career doubles titles in the 12 years she played in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Adams is the first former professional tennis player to run the USTA. She is also the only Black woman to hold that position in the organization’s 135-year history. In addition, at age 46, she was the youngest person ever to lead the nonprofit governing body of the U.S. Tennis Association, which owns and operates the U.S. Open and other tournaments. Adams describes her path as unconventional.
Being first didn’t start for Adams as an adult. Adams attended Whitney Young High School, becoming Illinois High School Association’s first Chicago Public School and the first African American singles champion in 1983 and 1984. While attending Northwestern University, Adams became a two-time All-American, winning a national championship in doubles. Last summer Whitney Young honored one of their most outstanding athletes as they unveiled the Katrina Adams Tennis Courts. The multi-year planning and fundraising project to resurface the courts, which are adjacent to the Michelle Obama Athletic Complex, is not only a representative of the school, it’s a representative of the community. “And for us, tennis is about the parks and accessibility.”
Her latest accomplishment is a debut memoir titled “Own the Arena, ” published in 2021. The book details her “twelve match points for thriving when you’re the only one.” Perhaps the most significant advice from her book that can relate to any job is “Never say never. You need to network and understand who your stakeholders are in whatever business or industry you are going into,” she says.
Adams credits having several strong mentors who helped her get ahead and discusses the importance of having a “personal board of business people and friends, acquaintances for many years that you trust and have expertise in areas in which you might not be so strong. Being able to lean on them and ask questions along the way, plus having people push you to go the extra mile is huge,” she says. “Just because it hasn’t been done before you, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. Own it and ensure that you protect and strengthen it, so that others would love to follow in your footsteps that may look like you.”
Adams admits facing pressure as the first Black woman to lead the USTA. “There’s always pressure because you want to leave a strong legacy behind. She adds that pressure is a privilege. And while she feels there has been some improvement for women of color in sports management, she said there is still a long way to go regarding diversity in corporate boardrooms. “Sadly, they don’t know where to go,” she said. “Even though we have headhunters, it’s hard for these people to find qualified candidates for a C-suite position or a public or private board.”
As for the future, Adams expresses a strong interest in returning to the boardroom outside of the sports realm herself. She serves on the board of GSE Worldwide, a talent representation and sports marketing agency, and several other organizations. She’s also executive director of the Harlem Community Tennis and Education Program, a position she has held for 17 years, celebrating its 50th anniversary with a capital campaign. “I’m inspired by the empowerment that I’m seeing across the spectrum,” she said. “I’m still trying to break into a board of a corporation, but it’s coming and I have to be patient.”