Tennis Everyone?

Katrina Adams, the new chief of the USTA and the first African American in that role, faces challenges galore in growing the sport. The ball is in her court.

Katrina AdamsKatrina Adams, the new chair of the board, CEO, and president of the United States Tennis Association—and a former tour player—doesn’t play tennis regularly anymore. It’s not because she is too old (she’s 46) or has any physical ailments that keep her from playing. These days, she doesn’t pick up a racquet because she’s too competitive and refuses to lose even a friendly match.

“People say all the time, ‘Hey, Kat, let’s go out and hit!’” she says. “I’m like, ‘Dude, I haven’t played. I’m not getting on the court with you!’ I can’t go on the court with all these people when I’m not ready to roll.”

That competitiveness and perfectionism should serve her well. Adams is the first former professional tennis player and first African American to lead the USTA. Based in White Plains, a suburb north of New York City, the USTA is the national nonprofit governing body for the sport of tennis and owns and operates the U.S. Open, one of the four grand-slam tournaments. Its mission is to support and promote the game, from regional junior tournaments to the national team.

Adams’s task is daunting. In recent years, the reputation of the United States on the international circuit has taken a hit, as other countries have passed it by, placing more players in the top hundred rankings. Talk about a competitive challenge—Adams’s charge is no less than bringing the United States back to, or at least into volley range of, its elevated perch during the glory years of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. This is a lofty goal, and believe it or not, serving as the head of the USTA is a volunteer position.

Given her pedigree as a former tour player who has garnered the respect of her peers, her position as head of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, and her finely honed leadership skills, Adams has a fighting chance.

“Katrina has a temperament that is perfect for the job,” says former New York Mayor David Dinkins, who served on the USTA board for 12 years. “Throughout her career, she has successfully worked with people from diverse backgrounds. She has the perfect combination—consensus builder with the vision.”

In reality, no one is expecting Adams, the youngest CEO in the 134-year history of USTA, to develop the next Chris Evert, John McEnroe, or Venus and Serena Williams. Her term is for just two years, and it would be impossible to nurture the next American Wimbledon champ in such a short span. Her foremost responsibility is cultivating the long-term health of tennis, from the bottom up. The USTA is responsible for player development in 17 sections across the United States. That means not only providing facilities and training and sometimes financial support for promising players, but, most importantly, making tennis relevant and even sexy again.

“When I was growing up in the ’70s, you played tennis and you loved tennis, and you just went out and played and trained, and that was it,” she says. “But nowadays kids in America have so many other opportunities for activities that you have to compete for their attention and free time. These kids are on tablets and computers and phones and all the electronics, and they also have options in other sports. I’m not saying that kids need to be in a single sport from a young age on, but I think we need to make them learn how to love tennis and want to play it all the time.”

In 1975, when Adams was a six-year-old in Chicago, she watched Arthur Ashe defeat Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon. She had already been playing some, but seeing an African American play her sport on television was a revelation.

“At that age I didn’t truly understand what professional tennis was, and I had no idea what playing in Wimbledon meant, but seeing him there inspired me to want to continue playing,” she says.

Adams began playing in a summer program near her home. Her parents, James and Yvonne, were teaching summer school, so her older brothers looked out for her by taking her to the tennis program they participated in every day. For two weeks she stood outside the fence begging to play (she was three years too young) both because she was bored and because she felt she could play better than all the kids on the court (yes, the competitive gene shows early).

“After I was persistent and annoying for a while, the coaches got permission from the club supervisor and from my parents to allow me to play,” she says. “I fell in love with the game from day one, from the moment I hit the tennis ball.”

Needless to say, she dominated, beating many older kids. She was voted the program’s most improved player.

Adams moved up the competitive tennis ladder, first in Chicago, then regionally. She loved the game—and she loved to win. “My motivation when I was young was collecting trophies,” she says. “I believe I stopped counting when I got to about 220.”

Today, those trophies have been given away or are “probably in a dumpster somewhere.”
When Adams was 12, she announced that she wanted to play tennis in college and ultimately be a professional tennis player. She won the Illinois state singles title in high school and then attended Northwestern, where she led the Wildcats to the 1986 and 1987 Big Ten titles. She was an All-American those two years and in 1987 became the first NCAA African American doubles champion.

She joined the professional tour in 1988. That season she reached the semis in doubles at Wimbledon and the fourth round in singles, losing to Chris Evert in three sets. Most of her success came in doubles, which she often played with her friend and mentor Zina Garrison. Garrison advised Adams on handling the rigors and pressures of the tour.

Adams says, in general, racism wasn’t an issue—or at least it wasn’t for her. “Were there experiences of being singled out or stared at?” she says. “Of course. But I was bigger than that, so it really didn’t bother me. I’ve always worked on seeking my goals, my dreams, and my desires, and if I’ve had those [negative] experiences, it’s because of those people’s ignorance, not because of something that I was.”

Two of Adams’s challenges at the USTA are to find and develop potential stars, while boosting the overall popularity of tennis participation nationally. The two go hand in hand. By increasing the involvement of children and youths, the USTA can instill a love for the game. As a result, the level of play rises, and this, in turn, creates a bigger pool of potential stars

Among Adams’s first priorities is, as she puts it, “trying to make tennis look like America” and working to continue to shed the game of its reputation as a country club sport. Tennis has long been popular among the Caucasian population, and in the past 20 years, in part due to the huge success of Serena and Venus Williams, it has become popular among African Americans. Tennis has also been a favorite sport historically among Asian Americans. That means the next focus will be working with the Hispanic community, which has not yet taken to the sport in significant numbers.

“There are many Latin players on the tour from Argentina, Spain, etcetera, but here in the United States, we are lacking,” says Adams. “There are a lot of different Latino and Hispanic cultures in the United States, and understanding these cultures better will help us as we try to embrace them in our sport. One of the goals is to be more inclusive of their families overall and introduce tennis as an affordable and accessible sport the entire family can play together.”

Of course, the emergence of a Latina breakout star like one of the Williams sisters or Tiger Woods in golf wouldn’t hurt.

Tennis has made significant inroads in the African American community not simply because Serena and Venus Williams have blown away their opponents on TV. Adams, who has been the executive director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program (HJTEP) for the past nine years, has had a lot to do with that as well.

The program’s mission is to build “champions in tennis and life” by providing tennis classes and programs, tutoring, mentoring, life skills, and nutrition and wellness classes for its student athletes. The HJTEP serves as an after-school program for more than 1,000 youth in the New York City area, up from just 80 kids nine years ago.
“The ultimate goal of the program is using tennis as a vehicle for these kids to earn a college scholarship,” says Adams.

Then, it is hoped, they would graduate college and launch into satisfying and productive lives. The HJTEP’s aim is to broaden lives—not narrow them into a tunnel-vision focus on winning (a young Katrina Adams probably would’ve hated it).

In a perfect world, programs like the HJTEP would serve as feeder or model programs for the USTA, which would then work to develop the most promising of these tennis-obsessed—yet also well-rounded—youngsters into future collegiate and professional athletes who will represent the United States internationally.

However, there are few programs like the HJTEP in the United States. Therefore, the USTA has introduced a game, called 10 and Under Tennis, that utilizes smaller courts, smaller rackets, and bigger balls. “It’s been a huge success across the country and in a lot of our inner-city programs and in city parks,” says Adams. “Think about it: When you look at basketball, kids don’t start playing on an NBA-size court. Peewee football players don’t start on an NFL-size field, nor do young Little League players begin on a field of Major League Baseball dimensions. Tennis should have the same goals as these other sports, which is, especially for players of a young age, to make sure that it’s fun.”

In a way, Adams’s mandate is bifurcated—to make tennis fun and to produce future grand-slam champions. The two don’t always go together. (Just ask Andre Agassi, who after he retired wrote a memoir in which he revealed that for most of his career, playing tennis made him miserable, in large part because of the pressure his father placed on him to win.)

Like Adams, Andre Benjamin, a former HJTEP student and Division I college tennis player (Georgetown University) and currently a VP at Goldman Sachs, believes that those two missions can coexist and indeed reinforce each other.

“Making tennis fun is what allows you to get talented young kids to stay engaged with the sport,” he says. “That said, once those talented kids have dedicated themselves to training and to being the best in the world, I still think they can’t be miserable, or they will find other things they’d rather do with their time. So, if tennis is made fun, they will then put the most energy and effort into being excellent.”

In recent years, succeeding on the world stage has been a struggle for American tennis, especially on the men’s side. As Adams points out, it’s not that the talent in the United States has slipped; it’s that the rest of the world has caught up.
The last US man to win a grand-slam tournament was Andy Roddick, in the 2003 U.S. Open. In 1984, 24 of the top-ranked men in the world were American. This year? Three men rank in the ATP’s top 50, as of press time, and nine American women rank in the top 50 in the WTA, with Serena Williams sitting pretty at No. 1.

Adams takes issue with the expectation that Americans should dominate the tennis rankings. She emphasizes that not everyone can be No. 1 in the United States or world tennis rankings. Nor even No. 100. And that’s OK.

“The unfortunate thing is that if you’re not No. 1 in the world, then [people think] you’ve done nothing,” she says.

Nevertheless, one of the mandates of the USTA is to create champions. The path back to American tennis prominence runs through the juniors program. In late 2016, the USTA will open a flagship complex in Orlando, Florida, for its player development program.

“We are looking for our next American U.S. Open champion for sure,” says Adams. “We have a lot of talented guys out there coming up, so it will happen.”

For Adams, tennis is more than a sport—it’s also a life-changer. It’s a means to an end, she feels, and that end is not raking in the trophies. It’s developing well-rounded, healthy, engaged global citizens whose experiences and contributions cannot, like a trophy, be given away or tossed in a dumpster. DW

We Need to Talk
What does a sports executive do to unwind? If you’re Katrina Adams, you go on national TV to talk about sports with some of the most intelligent and funny women in the sports universe.

Adams is one of the regulars on CBS Sports’ all-female sports talk show, We Need to Talk. Adams, boxer Laila Ali, basketball players Swin Cash and Lisa Leslie, swimmers Summer Sanders and Dara Torres, and well-regarded sports journalists including Lesley Visser and Andrea Kremer debate sports, crack jokes, and entertain the audience—and themselves.

“I love that show!” says Adams. “Let me tell you, it’s amazing to be able to work with these brilliant women. Everybody comes from so many different backgrounds, so many different sports, and what binds us is a passion for sports. We don’t just talk about our own sport—we talk about sports in general. To bring a different perspective and different viewpoint to sports without the testosterone has been just fascinating.”

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