When Katrina Adams was named president and CEO of the United States Tennis Association in 2015, becoming the first Black person to lead the 135-year-old organization, my mind flashed back to when we met about two years earlier.
The occasion was a reception for tennis legend Billie Jean King at the National Press Club where she was the keynote luncheon speaker. I was struck by Adams’ impeccable appearance, enchanting smile, and social grace as she introduced Billie Jean to guests in the room.
Then, she steered Billie Jean over to me. As the only Black guest in the room, I was flattered.
That encounter made an enduring impression on me. After reading Adams’ recently released book, “Own the Arena: Getting Ahead, Making a Difference, and Succeeding as the Only One,” I now understand why. She had owned the moment!
Adams’ 272-page book published by HarperCollins illuminates her journey from the time she began hitting balls as a six-year-old on the West Side of Chicago to becoming the first Black and Chicago public school player to win the Illinois high school singles championship to becoming a two-time NCAA All-American at Northwestern University and the first Black national doubles champion to a 12-year career on the Women’s Tennis Association tour in which she won 20 doubles titles to serving an unprecedented two terms at the helm of the USTA and serving as chairperson of the International Tennis Federation Fed Cup committee since 2016.
But Own the Arena is more than just an autobiography of a Black woman’s success in tennis. It also is a motivational guide for overcoming the feeling of being out on a limb as the only Black or only woman or both in any environment. As a player, USTA board member and executive and ITF board member, Adams had plenty of experience being the only one the room.
“I have gained an incredible amount of knowledge being in these rooms,” she writes. “I have also learned that it is especially important to bring my full, true self into the conversation – culture and all. But it took many rich and varied experiences for me to recognize this truth.”
Adams’ message – highlighted by her “12 Match Points For Ways To Thrive When You’re The Only One” – is about being self-confident and assertive without being overbearing. It is about taking responsibility for one’s words and deeds. And it is about representing.
She attributes her ability to thrive to principles and values passed on by her parents and coping skills learned on the tennis court.
”Tennis is a preparatory sport for becoming who you are,” Adams writes. “It builds character and resilience both inside and outside the sport. It teaches us what it means to have a good loss that helps us to develop smarter strategies for the next match, along with the confidence and persistence that comes from repeatedly falling on your face.”
Whether intentional or coincidental, the timing of the book’s release was auspicious, coming during Black History Month and just ahead of Women’s History Month, giving the book back-to-back promotional pegs.
In a Feb.23 appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, the 52-year-old Adams, who has made Adweek’s and Forbes’ “Most Powerful Women in Sports” lists, shared what it meant to serve four years as head of the USTA and another two years as immediate past president, which was her role as she presided over the unveiling of the Althea Gibson statue at the start of the 2019 US Open.
“It was very important to me that when I took the stage everyone could see that there were possibilities,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that on every platform I had an opportunity to speak on that I was able to represent not only the USTA, not only myself, but a broader group of people that did not necessarily see themselves in our sport.”
After her playing career, Adams moved into coaching and became executive director of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program. In 2003, she became the first Black game analyst on Tennis Channel. She joined the USTA board in 2005. Along with being the USTA’s first Black president and CEO, she was the youngest person and first former player to serve in that capacity.
In Own the Arena, Adams provides a glimpse of a player’s life on tour, sheds light on the meticulous planning that goes into hosting the US Open every year and takes you inside the President’s Suite at Arthur Ashe Stadium where corporate sponsors, celebrities and friends occupy the most coveted seats in the house.
The book opens with literary flourish as Adams describes the atmosphere on the night of the 2018 US Open women’s championship match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka that ended in controversy:
“It was one of those steamy summer evenings in New York City, where the jagged Manhattan skyline viewed from Queens appeared to soften in the hazy distance. The air was so still that, in between the squeaking of rubber tennis shoes, the grunts of the players, and the bounces of their tennis balls, I could hear moths buzzing kamikaze-style up against the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium.”
In a poignant chapter, titled “Baby Woman,” Adams comes to grips with her single-minded quest to become a world-class tennis player.
The chapter begins with Adams playing through some discomfort that had her “running to the bathroom during every changeover” of a USTA National tournament match. It wasn’t until more than a week later when she had returned home to nurse an ankle she sprained in another tournament that she confided to her mother what had happened.
It turned out she had suffered an ovarian cyst rupture that led to the removal of her fallopian tubes and one and a half ovaries. At the age of 17, it was heartbreaking to learn she would not be able to have a natural childbirth. It would be a critical factor in the breakup of a relationship that was as close to marriage as she ever got.
“If I hadn’t been so driven to compete those two weeks on the road, I might have paid closer attention to the state of my well-being,” Adams writes.
Later in the chapter, she reflects on other sacrifices, including not hanging out with friends, shunning long-term relationships, skipping parties and other social events.
“I don’t necessarily regret my decisions,” she writes, “but years later I understood that they could come at an emotional and, in my case, physical cost. Even though I made these choices in full awareness, there have been moments when I asked myself whether it was too high a price to pay.”
Own the Arena elicits a range of emotions. I found myself smiling here, laughing there, and marveling at the courage it must have taken for Adams to reveal her personal trauma in realizing that her competitive drive to excel on and off the court came with consequences.
While I was disappointed Adams chose not to delve deeper into issues of diversity and race at the USTA, I enjoyed the read — twice. At the end, I came away with a deeper admiration and appreciation of this Black woman whose arena has deservedly expanded.