Katrina Adams' first book, Own The Arena, is subtitled Getting Ahead, Making A Difference, And Succeeding As The Only One. Adams was a trailblazing WTA Tour player whose career took her into the doubles Top 10 and singles Top 75. Spanning more than 10 years in the late '80s and '90s, Adams was on the frontlines of a generational shift. In her Wimbledon debut in 1988, she played against Chris Evert in the fourth round. Her final professional singles match in 1998 was against a 17-year-old Serena Williams in Oklahoma City.
If Adams' life as a player on a white-dominated tour was the first time she had been "the only one," it set the stage for her rise through the corporate tennis establishment. Stints on the WTA and USTA boards of directors paved the way for Adams to become the first Black president of the USTA, in 2015. She was also the youngest person to rise to that position, as well as the first former player, and became the first to serve two terms in it - milestones that saw her recognized on a multitude of “Most Powerful Women in Sport” lists.
Own The Arena is part corporate advice manual and part memoir. Adams recounts her business challenges through the prism of her life experience and repeatedly emphasizes her central message: That leadership is a business of enabling others, and that this is how change comes about. Over the course of an interview with wtatennis.com to honor Black History Month, she shares her experiences of overcoming racism, reflects on the progress that has been made and discusses the inspiration of a bold new generation of players.
Could you have imagined in 1988, when your career started, that around 30 years later, an American tournament would pause play for a day to take a stance against racial inequality and social injustice, as the Western & Southern Open did last year?
Katrina Adams: Thirty years later, absolutely not. This would not have happened in 1988, just twenty years after the civil rights movement in America. But I think the respect that the WTA, the ATP and the USTA had for the Black Lives Matter movement showed that our sport has grown to tremendous heights. It's helpful that many of the leaders of the WTA are Black - Naomi, Serena Williams, Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens.
There's an understanding that the racial divide here in America just has to stop. It has to stop worldwide. I mean, it's not just here in America. I live here, so I have to say it's more obvious, but I can't say that for the rest of the world, because I don't know. But I was very pleased, it warmed my heart that they actually stopped play for the day.
Do you see the institutional support of Naomi last year as the culmination of your own groundwork at the USTA and within the tennis establishment?
Adams: I would say that I hope my groundwork has resonated with millions of people. I hope it has resonated with all of the Black players on the tour, men and women. I hope that it has resonated with our sport in general.
I will say that I wasn't as vocal as I probably could have been as the president of the USTA. But we weren't dealing with the same situations. The things that were happening weren't so overt, happening week after week after week. If I had been the president during the biggest push of Black Lives Matter, we'd have been in the movement for years. But in 2020, I might have been a little more vocal, a little more outwardly spoken on those issues. But I felt that I was outspoken on those issues for all minority groups, not just African Americans.
How has the past year changed your perspective?
Adams: We often look back and say, Wow, I wish I'd done this, I wish I'd done that. And there were things that occurred that - as I had pretty much done for the majority of my professional career - I swept under the rug. You know, I shrugged it off my shoulders and kept going.
But I think all of us, particularly Black people, reached a point of the highest tension last year. Now, I don't have a problem speaking about issues, or speaking up, or bringing things to light, or making people aware of certain things. And I feel even more strongly that it's my obligation and my duty to let people know when they're in the wrong or they made a wrong move. And not to be rude about it, but to say: Hey, did you realize you did that? Or to ask the question: What did you mean by that?
Because some people are automatically saying certain things because that's what they've heard other people say, or they heard their parents say, and it just becomes a part of them without stopping to think: Hey, what does that really mean?
In your book, you write about how important diplomacy is at the highest corporate levels. How you you judge, in the moment, whether to let something slide or call it out?
Adams: You don't have to be mean about it. You question someone. "I'm sorry, what did you mean by that?" Or, "Please forgive me, but it seems like you are singling out a certain group of people." Or, "You're not acknowledging X or Y." And there's definitely a way to communicate it without being mean. You can also tell by the tone of someone's voice whether they are intentionally being offensive, or if unbeknownst to them they are being offensive.
What do you think you've learned from the generation of Black players who came before you on racial politics and equality - and from the current younger generation who have come after you?
Adams: The generation before me would have been Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil and Leslie Allen, that group. They were strictly playing in a predominantly white sport - when it came to the professional ranks, or the competitive ranks, that is. Black history and tennis goes back to the 1800s, but no one really knew about it because it was segregated, and we weren't allowed to play in the USLTA tournaments. And so that's why the ATA was formed back in 1916 - the American Tennis Association, where we had our own tournaments and platforms. Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Jimmie McDaniel came through it. My first tournament was an ATA national tournament.
So when you look at the biases that were there in the '70s, '80s, '90s, speaking out was not an option. I played from 1988 through 1999, and I think I was more keen to fit in. To make sure that I did not make a scene; that I crossed my Ts and dotted my Is everywhere I went. And I think that was a detriment to my competitive edge. I wanted to make sure that I was likable and that I wasn't doing anything wrong, because all eyes were on me.
And then you fast forward to the generation today. They're like, Look, I'm the face of this sport - and you're not going to treat me or my peers a certain way.
What kind of things happened to you as a player that stand out in retrospect?
Adams: I remember coming off the court, following my opponent into the locker room area, or inside a secure area. We're wet with sweat and with our racquets, and my opponent walks right by the security person without their ID, no questions. And I'm following behind - and I get stopped, because I don't look like I belong there. I'd also walk into sponsor parties with my peers and I'd get questions. "May I have your name?" "Are you on the list?" My fellow players are like, "No, no, no, she's a player!" And they'd say, "Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." It's just little things but you don't forget those moments. Those are scars that build up over time to where you just get sick of it.
I don't think it's that way today. Venus and Serena definitely changed the look of the women's game in particular, and everybody who came up after them and idolized them are now professionals themselves. People receive people differently now. And I think the tour has probably worked really hard as well over the years to make sure that their image is more diverse and more inclusive. We're a global sport, and that's a thing we have to really be mindful of. We come in all different sizes and shades of color.
As you discuss in your book, society is pretty polarized right now - especially when it comes to racial issues. How, as a leader in the sport, do you approach this?
Adams: Well, that's freedom of speech - people expressing their likes or dislikes of certain things. But at the end of the day, education is key, right? We're all human and we're all out there striving to be the best that we can be as players and reach the mountaintop, if you will - No.1 in the world. You're always gonna have people who have their biases and their prejudices, just because that's who they are. You're not going to change their minds.
But what you can do is be consistent with your image and your statements, and to hopefully make people say, "You know what, let me think about this, maybe I'm the one that's wrong about it." If you don't show it, people won't see it.
You write that you used to downplay the significance of being the "first" or the "only" in order to fit in - but that now you know it is "important to own one's identity." Was this a gradual realization over time, or was there a particular key moment?
Adams: I don't think it's anything specific. I think it's a combination of a lot of different things. But I will say that the backlash that I got from the US Open presentation, where I felt that my words were misconstrued, was a point where I thought: Enough is enough. I got tweets and letters saying I obviously wanted Serena to win because she's Black. I'm like, "Dude, did you see both players on court? They're both Black."
I would say it was in that moment that I said, you know what, I'm done with being "politically correct", if you will. I started to speak back, and speak out. And I started to realize about other things that may have occurred in my professional career, in that year, to make me start to think differently and say, I'm not being the nice girl anymore. Because people need to know that words hurt.
And so in everything that I do now, in any committee or any talk or whatever, I make sure that people recognize their own challenges, their own obstacles and their own biases that are ingrained in them. And I'm not going to allow you to get away with saying, "Oh, that's my unconscious bias." You knew exactly what you were saying, so how is it unconscious?
What do you recall about Venus and Serena when they first emerged on the tennis scene?
Adams: Those girls were brilliant when they burst on the scene. But people judged them by their look. The first judgment was: "Oh, look at them out there with those braids and those beads. No place in our sport for that. Oh, their father, he's so vocal. He's so arrogant. He's so this, he's so that." Well, let's see, I think everything he said was going to happen came true!
But no one has really honored Richard Williams or Oracene Price for their prowess, their determination, their confidence. They may have been unorthodox - based on what was known up until that point in terms of coaching. But all people did was chastise them, as opposed to applaud them for being for doing something different. And it came down to the entire family being chastised - not just Mr. Williams, but the girls too. Think about the mentality and the strength that Venus and Serena needed to have to block all of that negativity out and go on and be two of the greatest players that ever walked on the planet.
In your book, you described wanting to pull out of a junior tournament in a location where the Confederate flag was flying. Your mother persuaded you not to. Can you tell me more about that incident?
Adams: That would have been in the early '80s, not even 20 years out of the civil rights movement. Because I had been taught Black history - this is important - because I had been taught Black history in elementary school, then I understood and knew exactly what that flag represented. Had I not been taught Black history, I would have just thought it was a colorful flag or a different flag.
But my parents had grown up in Mississippi, born in the '30s and went to college down there in the '50s. As soon as they graduated, they moved to Chicago. So I was knowledgeable, and I understood exactly what it meant.
Fast forward 30 years, I had retired and become a coach, and I'm covering the South. And I'm driving down the highways and I'm still seeing the flag. And it's like, I'm not going. I'm not driving down the highway by myself into this small town and getting there after dark. If I have to go, I'm going first thing in the morning and I'm leaving before it's dark. Those are real situations.