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    The Tennis Advantage

    No one has been more pleased to see Black and other minority participation in tennis increase in recent years than Katrina Adams. As a pioneering Black player on the professional circuit who went on to become the first Black president of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), she welcomes the trend fueled, she says, by the success of the likes of sisters Serena and Venus Williams and, more recently, Sloan Stephens and Madison Keys.

    Adams is heartened by that growing interest for several reasons. First, there are the life skills you learn as a result of playing—“discipline, your behavior, your intensity, building your self-esteem and your self-confidence, understanding how to deal with adversity,” she lists. “All the things that you need to do to be successful in life.” But there’s also the financial possibilities, “not so much to ultimately be that professional tennis player but using the sport as a tool to earn a college scholarship.”

    In addition, Adams believes tennis and other sports offer an important release valve at a time of heightened tensions. “It’s imperative today in particular, with the resurgence of a lot of the political biases, the race biases, ethnic biases here in the U.S. in particular, that our kids are even more engaged in sport because it’s an outlet to go out and let off some steam . . . it opens and frees up your mind more.”

    The drive behind Adams’ successful playing career—she rose to 67th in the singles rankings and 8th in doubles—has served her well since in different leadership roles. She was the USTA’s youngest and first two-term president and chairman (2015-2018) and is a board member of the International Tennis Association, where she chairs the Advantage All committee. It champions equality in the sport on and off the court through five pillars: balance, value, voice, culture and empowerment.

    Adams owes her leadership and business successes to what she learned on the court. “I’ve always been my person,” she says. “I never held back on the court; I was a serve-volleyer, so I was an aggressive player because I have an aggressive personality. I’m not a person that just sits back.” Adams traces that competitive nature back to childhood. “I always had that confidence,” she remembers. “I always spoke out as a kid. My mom used to tell me that I’ve been here before, because of the wisdom that I had at a young age, and I’ve carried that throughout my life.”

    Adams has shared some of her lessons in her 2021 book Own the Arena: Getting Ahead, Making a Difference, and Succeeding as the Only One, which one reviewer praised for offering “an extraordinary glimpse into the life of a Black superstar” and its lessons on “perseverance, persistence, and professionalism.”

    Adams believes tennis has led the sports world in championing women: she notes this year marks the 50th anniversaries of the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and equal prize money being offered at the US Open. “We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go,” she says. There is still some disparity when it comes to some joint events outside the Grand Slam tour, “but having said that, I think women in other sports have looked to tennis to recognize that, ‘Hey, we deserve more.’”

    Having started playing tennis on public courts on Chicago’s West Side, Adams is committed to ensuring young people continue to have access and opportunities to experience the sport. She is executive director of the Harlem Tennis & Junior Education Program in New York City, where she has been involved for almost 20 years.

    Team player
    A tomboy who tried her hand at all sports, Adams knew from the moment she hit her first shot that tennis was her thing. Introduced to the game as a 6-year-old at a summer tennis camp, “the first ball I struck over the net into the court, I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’”

    During her 12-year career, she reached the fourth round of the 1988 Wimbledon singles championships (losing to Chris Evert), the same year in which she won the world doubles championship with partner Zina Garrison, one of 20 total WTA doubles titles.

    Doubles has its own particular lessons for anyone in leadership, she observes. While singles is naturally all about you, “doubles is about teamwork. It’s about communication. It’s about understanding one another. It’s about being the yin and the yang, being passive and aggressive and bringing that together. It’s about having the perfect chemistry with one another.”

    It’s no different in business, she says. “It’s about executing, it’s about communication, it’s about collaboration, it’s about being accountable… you have to be accountable for your side of the court and what your role is on the team.”

    Tennis players need to be nimble, a quality Adams has carried over into her post-court career—coach, television commentator (Tennis Channel and CBS Sports) and executive leader. Those kinds of transitions, she advises, require a clear set of goals and a careful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses you bring to the new opportunity. In areas where you may be weak, she suggests, create your own “personal board” of advisers.

    As someone who grew from coaching, Adams is a big proponent of mentoring. “I am quick to ask for support and I think others shouldn’t shy away from asking for support,” she says. “It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength because you’re confident in yourself enough and your abilities to be able to go and ask for support… you need others to help you make your way.”

    During her playing days, Adams learned a thing or two about coming back when you’re down, lessons that can apply off the court. “Don’t let anybody get in your way,” she says. “Don’t let anyone say what you can’t do. There’s no such thing as I can’t. You may not have been able to do something or accomplish something to date, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t accomplish it down the road if it’s something that you’re preparing yourself for.”

    You lose more than you win when you’re starting out in a sport “and it’s the same thing in business. There are going to be some losses. There are going to be some letdowns. There are going to be some contracts you’re not going to get. But you go back to the drawing board to figure out how can you do better the next go around, the next opportunity that you have… Don’t ever give up on what that dream is because that’s what keeps you motivated and aspiring to be your best.”

    My parents made a lot of sacrifices. They were teachers, and they made a way for me to get to my lessons, to pay for my lessons, and to get me to tournaments nationwide and, ultimately, globally. Most, if not all, of the coaches that I worked with made a way for me to have the opportunity to be on their courts. They gave me free lessons whenever they could. Club owners gave me free court time whenever they could.

    In my business life, Billie Jean King has been a mentor who has always inspired me and never shied away from giving advice. Stacey Allaster, former CEO of the WTA and now chief professional of tennis at the USTA, has always been someone I could lean on. One of my best friends, Roberta Graves, who was very successful in the corporate world before raising four kids, was my executive adviser when I became president of the USTA, sharing her knowledge and expertise.

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