“I’m in my haven!” exclaimed Katrina Adams, calling from Paris during the first week of the 2015 French Open. “I’m with my people… I’m in my world!”
For 47-year-old Adams, there is no better place to be than a tennis Grand Slam tournament. For 12 years, she attended as a professional player, battling tennis goddesses like Martina Hingis. Her first and favorite memory as a professional player was looking at the scoreboard at Wimbledon in 1987 while playing Chris Evert, the world’s No. 1 female player during the late ’70s and early ’80s, and realizing she was winning. (Adams idolized Evert and played with an Evert racket.) Adams lost that match, but she made it to the exclusive fourth round of the tournament a year later.
Now she attends in a different capacity: as the head of the United States Tennis Association. She’s not just the youngest person and the first African American to hold the title: She’s also the first former pro player, and it’s her job to make sure the sport she loves flourishes in America. These days, at tournaments, Adams hosts receptions to encourage junior players to keep up with the game and represent the United States well, and she exchanges tips with international leaders in players’ boxes about how to widen the reach of the sport. Outside of the majors season, she continues her work in White Plains, where she lives in an apartment 10 minutes from USTA headquarters. “I love to win. I love to make a difference,” she says. “So I carry that attitude throughout my life and everything I have done and what I do.”
Adams is responsible for setting directions and policies for American tennis. “The USTA is the central hub for all levels of tennis,” says Gary Belsky, former editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine. “In some ways, it is both the NBA and USA Basketball or the NHL and USA Hockey. It has a hand in every level, from grass-roots to the pros.” Under Adams’ watch, the USTA’s most important mission is making tennis available to more and all communities. She’s working on a large push to get Hispanics involved in the sport: “It is the fastest-growing population in America, and we need to make sure that tennis looks like America,” she says. She’s also pushing programs that engage high school students throughout the year, as opposed to seasonally.
Adams in a 1991 tournament
Her day job (chairing the USTA is an unpaid volunteer position) as executive director of Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, an organization that brings tennis to youth in high-risk, low-income inner-city neighborhoods, is just as personal, if not more personal. Adams grew up on Chicago’s West Side, where her parents weren’t exactly poor but lacked disposable income for fancy sports. She tagged along with her teenage brothers to a Boys Club summer tennis program when she was 6, and she started hitting balls on the sideline. Coaches took notice of her natural skill and placed her in a free program to learn techniques. They fundraised for her to attend tournaments, and by age 7, she was playing in her first 10-and-under competition.
Tennis was never just a sport for Adams: “It’s a sport of a lifetime and a sport that teaches life skills like how to deal with adversity, and it builds confidence and self-esteem.” Indeed, tennis is deeply woven into her journey: She played tennis in college for Northwestern University, and her best friends come from the tennis world. “There is a bond you develop on the court as you travel week in and week out,” she says. “I can be anywhere in the world and know that I can pick up the phone and call a fellow player and say, ‘Hey I’m in town,’ or, ‘Hey, I’m trouble.’”
So even when she stopped playing professionally in 1999, Adams was never going to abandon tennis. She joined the Tennis Channel as a sports commentator and CBS Sports Network on an all-female sports show called We Need to Talk. In doing so, she became part of a larger push to have more female sports broadcasters in this country. “It matters because women comprise half the population in this country, because women take sports seriously as fans and participants, and because diversity of viewpoint is important in every aspect of media, not to mention life in general,” says Belsky.
Adams joined the USTA’s board in 2005 and served on committees ranging from budget and compensation to player development. She climbed higher and higher throughout the decade, and on January 1, 2015, she started the two-year stint as chief.
Having Adams at the top is “huge for the sport,” according to Belsky. Putting money into diversity is one thing, but having someone from a nontraditional tennis background serving as the face of the USTA is quite another. And though it may be a short term, she has the potential to make great change. “It will be interesting to watch how her relationship progresses with the people who have historically run tennis in this country, none of whom will remind you of her. That is, older white males who often come from moneyed backgrounds. She will surely not be a puppet, and she may in fact be a strong candidate to become executive director once done as president. That job is full-time—and pays well.”
12-year-old Adams with (left to right) her father James Adams, the late tennis pro Arthur Ashe, and her mother Yvonne Adams
Chris Widmaier, a corporate communications managing director for the USTA, discussed just how difficult the chairwomanship can be. “She is literally the face of the US Open,” he says. “When luminaries from the tennis world visit, she serves as the host and the epitome of all things tennis around the globe. It’s a job that puts a lot of pressure and a lot of time and a lot of demands on an individual.” Adams is always emailing the staff, suggesting a new festival that could make the US Open better or checking in with local boards to see if they are increasing their Hispanic population above 18 percent, where it currently stands. (That’s up from 14 percent when Adams started the program.)
Yet, Adams still finds time for fun. A lot of it. In White Plains, where she’s lived for nine years because, she says, it has a “mini-Manhattan atmosphere,” she hangs out with friends at favorite spots like BLT Steak, Sofrito, or Hudson Grille. She’s never been married and has no children.
She plays tennis at the Saw Mill Club in Mount Kisco and LifeTime Fitness in Harrison with former pros like Gigi Fernández, who lives in Connecticut. She also plays with the chief operating officer of the USTA, Gordon Smith. “We just hit; we don’t play,” she says, laughing. “I’m not going to put him down, because we would know who would win if we actually played.”
For two months every summer, the organization holds a friendly tennis competition every Wednesday for its 120 staff members. There might be a Happy Hour after, says Widmaier, “But we wouldn’t tell Katrina even if there was one.”
That’s because everyone, from the USTA staff to her tennis partners, knows that working with Adams means fighting hard and not stopping for a drink. As Widmaier says, “If you play with Katrina, bring your A-game.”