This week’s conversation is with Katrina Adams, the first African American to lead the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the first two-term Chairman and President of said organization and the first former player to hold that honor.

Under her guidance, the USTA achieved a number of major milestones, including the opening of the 100 court USTA National Campus in Orlando, the strategic transformation of the $600 million USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. and an unprecedented outreach effort into underserved communities in an effort to share the sport of tennis with more people.

Prior to this role, Katrina competed for 12 years on the WTA Tour, winning 20 career doubles titles and reaching the quarterfinals or better in doubles at all four Grand Slam events.

Katrina’s hard work in tennis, leadership and philanthropy has earned her many accolades including: being named on Adweek magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in Sports” list twice (2016 and 2017), Forbes magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in Sports” list in 2017 and Ebony magazine’s “Power 100” list.

So, in short, Katrina is a flat-out trailblazer, and it’s why I was so excited to have this conversation.

We discuss her journey – the sacrifices she made to become head of the USTA, the obstacles she overcame while successfully leading an organization with 700,000+ members, and why athletes like Naomi Osaka are helping to evolve the narrative around mental wellbeing.

“Life is complex, there’s nothing simple about it, but it’s how we approach it that simplifies it. That’s my focus in how I approach life… it’s to find a way to simplify it.”

In This Episode:

How does she deal with internal pain & struggle

I think every single person has some difficulties or struggles or inner pain about something or someone. I have been that individual that when things happen, I move forward. So it’s not that I forget about them, but I kind of push them behind me because dwelling and really hovering over it doesn’t solve anything. I try to address it. I try to deal with it. And then I move on. I don’t forget, but I do move on. And that’s how I pretty much live my life

Why she titled her book “Own the Arena”

In my sport of tennis, as an African American or person of color, I was often the only one that was out there playing in a lot of our events in the suburbs or national events, et cetera. So I was always in that space. And from a very young age, I always walked into a room as if I owned it. I didn’t have a shy bone in me when it came to being the one in the center of the room. Maybe that’s because I’m a Leo, I don’t know, but it was the confidence that I’ve always had in myself. And so as I’ve matured and in every room that I walked into, no matter where, I always walked in as if I owned it. So the title was meant to be all in the room. And my publisher and editor decided that it was, they said, “Kat, you’re bigger than a room. You’re more like an arena.” And I said, “Ooh, I like that.” Because an arena can be anywhere. Your arena is where you are right now in your home or in your office, in your car, on your court, on your field, at the beach, wherever it is, that’s your arena and the space that you are filling. And I think everyone needs to understand that, because if you can own your arena, then you’re owning your own presence. You’re owning your own will as to what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. And so getting ahead and making a difference in succeeding as the only one, as the only one of being the only woman in the room or the only person of color, only Black person, whatever that might be. And I think everyone, at some point, has been the only one of something somewhere, whether you’re the only man, the only woman, the only white person, the only Asian, Hispanic, person of color, whatever that might be, we’ve all experienced that somehow. And you have to figure out, how did that make you feel? How did you deal with it? How did you address it? And how did you walk away from it? And so those are many of the things that I address in the book.

Her relationship with authenticity

I think a lot of it had to do with the turn of events in 2020, to where I realized who I am and where I’m from and what I represent and who I represent. And it was a year ago, 14 months ago, where I made a promise to myself that I’m no longer going to try to be anything other than myself and that I’m not going to hide from anything and I’m not going to shy away from anything or let anything just go over my head or accept just anything. Too often in life, we just accept things that are said to us or done to us. And you push them off because you just don’t want to deal with it. Or you recognize, “Well, I better not say anything because they might look at me differently or think this or think that.” And now I’m like, “No, I’ve got to be true to myself in a lot of this. This is all about identity that I’m referencing.” And so that’s something that I can definitely say in the last 14 months that I’m a lot more vocal about than I was previously.

Does she relate to the idea of two selves… showing up one way because of social pressures or context

I think I’ve always been that person. I’ve been the person that I would adapt to fit in. I think humans do that. We have to adapt. We have to adapt to fit in. And as a Black person, you always have to adapt to not to offend. And because people always look at us as Black people, people of color as perhaps offensive or aggressive or too assertive, which is not necessarily true, and it’s unfair to always have labels on you anytime that you’re in a room, because there are these assumptions, there are these stereotypes that people have, particularly if their society and their upbringing and their world, they’ve never had to deal with people of color. And so there’s a negative thing there.

What’s an example of this?

As far as being African American… if you’ve never been in a society where you grew up with people that look like me, a lot of people only know what they hear on television, on the news, in television shows or in movies. And unfortunately, we’re always depicted as something negative, 90% of the time, because you have the writers that are writing what they want to write. They’re writing what sells, as opposed to really writing true stories. So I’ve had these conversations with people, and that’s why I can sit here and say that. And until they actually get out into the real world and recognize that the world looks different for them and that we’re all human and that we’re all striving to be successful in our own ways, in our own professions, whatever that might be, and that we all bleed red, it’s challenging. And so then there’s an epiphany that goes off with someone who says, “Oh, wow, what I’ve been taught or what I’ve been told or what I’ve read or what I’ve seen is totally not true.” And it’s in these moments, even in corporate America right now, we’re not supposed to, as Black people, be on the same level in a C-suite as our peers that don’t look like us. And that’s a challenge. And so sport is a breakthrough where we’re all out there performing on the same level to succeed, striving to win and be our best of black, white, red, yellow, green, purple, whatever coming together for the good of the sport, and that everybody can applaud each other and pat each other on the back and live in the same space equally. But as soon as you come out of that, as soon as you come off the field or off the court or out of the pool or wherever you are, you’re just viewed as another this or another that, because now I’m not in uniform and you’re not cheering for me. And now, you’re threatened by me. Really? Come on now. So not so much me personally, but it’s just my experiences with many of my friends and colleagues.

What was her experience like becoming the first female black leader of the USTA?

It was really about my fortitude and my vision and my passion that got me there to make a difference. I made a huge difference. As soon as I stepped foot in the door, my name was on the plate and my face was plastered over everything, that people in our sport said, “Wow, this can happen? This is happening? This is real?” And now they saw themselves in our sport in a different light. So they were more motivated to play more, motivated to get others to play, motivated to say, “Hey, look at Kat. Hey, do you know this person? Do you know her?” And so, I had to work three times as hard, just to make sure that I did a great job. Because I was not only just representing myself or my family or the organization, I was representing a whole race of people, a whole culture of people. And I knew that I had to do my best and stay up and on at all times because I couldn’t let my guard down. I couldn’t afford to fail. I couldn’t afford to make a mistake because all eyes were on me at all times, waiting for me to make a mistake, waiting for me to fail, and waiting for me to do something out of the ordinary. And the things that I did out of the ordinary were successful. And so, that’s where you lead, and that’s where you’re able to mentor and bring others along with you and recognize the space that you’re in.

Who were her role models within tennis?

The role models that I did have were much older, and two of them are no longer with us, which is Althea Gibson who broke the color barrier in our sport as a professional player and went on to win 11 Grand Slam titles. And so I know that I walk in her footsteps every day of my life. And I’m grateful that she did that, to allow me to play in the sport. There’s Arthur Ashe, who came after her, who’s known a lot more for his humanitarian efforts of fighting for equal rights and outside of tennis, outside of being a champion. And there’s Billie Jean King, who is a mentor and is a friend and is a role model, and we all know what she’s accomplished and continue to do, to fight for equality in our sport or in all sports and just in life in general, to do that.

Naomi Osaka’s impact on the game of tennis

When you look at Naomi Osaka, and you back up a year, and you see her step up and step out and be vocal about social injustice during the US Open, or even before that, when she said she wasn’t going to play at the Western & Southern Open, that was actually played here in New York and not Cinci, due to COVID. And then wearing the mask during the US Open, we saw a very different Naomi Osaka than we’ve ever seen before, who was confident in what she was speaking about, knowledgeable about the topics, and bringing awareness on a platform that had never seen that type of awareness before. So kudos to her for that. And it got a lot of other players, men and women of all races and from all countries saying, “Wow, tell me more. I don’t understand what’s going on.” So that opened up a whole different conversation in our sport, which was great. You fast forward a year, and it’s around the anniversary of Mr. Floyd’s death, and it’s the French Open. And she says, “I’m not going to do the media conferences after my matches. I’ll do the on court interviews, but I really have to look after my mental health, blah, blah, blah.” And then all hell breaks out for lots of various reasons from different angles, and to the point where she said, “Okay, I’m pulling out. I didn’t say that to really stir up anything, but this is really about what I need to do for myself.” Pulled out of Wimbledon. Did participate in the Olympics, carried the torch, lit the torch, which is amazing. And now, she’s prepping to come back to the US Open, to defend her title. And so, hopefully she has gotten the help that she’s needed and the time that she’s needed. But what she did was bring awareness to an issue that’s been around for decades, particularly with professional athletes, to where it is… We were told that it’s our job to go out and run, jump, shoot, hit, throw, whatever that might be, and who cares about your mental state? Just go out and perform. And she’s saying, “No, no, no. More than that, I’ve got to take care of myself so that I can go out and perform and be the best that I can for you.”

The mental toll athletes face always being in the spotlight

I think it’s so important that we all recognize that we are human. We are at the heights of our games. Often we are in the spotlight 24/7. There’s no way or nowhere that you can hide, particularly with cell phone cameras. And it’s hard to always be up for everyone in the world, for all of your fans, when sometimes you just want to shut down. And I played on the tour for 12 years, and I had that… My nickname was Hollywood because I was always out and going and upbeat and what have you, but that was in the face of others. Not necessarily in my hotel room, where you can just finally let go and shut down and let all that weight off of trying to be someone for everybody else, where you have to be that person for yourself first. And I think a lot of these superstars in particular, these mega stars, that’s what they’re feeling. They feel like they have to always be on for the world, for their fans, for the sponsors and everybody else that they have relationships with. And sometimes, they just want to be alone and be in their own little bubble, in their space, to have a mental break. And so, I think that’s what Naomi has done in bringing awareness. This is about awareness more so than anything. And I applaud her for bringing that to the forefront.

Two keys to her internal strength: awareness + letting go

I’m the person that things happen today, and I move forward tomorrow because dwelling on it is not going to help me solve the problem or move forward or overcome whatever that is. So I’m not one to wallow in my sorrow, if and when I have it. I’m one to just say, okay, that happened for a reason. Let’s figure out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And let’s move forward. I think part of it comes from my training as a tennis player. I lost this point I got another point. I lost this set there’s another set. I lost this match there’s always tomorrow. I’m out of this tournament there’s always next week. You don’t really have time to waste negative energy on reflecting on something that didn’t go well. You got to figure it out and you’ve got to make the adjustments and move forward. That’s pretty much how I navigate life.

If she could sit with another master, who would it be?

Gandhi. I’ve been to Bhutan on the top of the highest mountain in the world, to be on top of the world at peace in the mountains and snow caps and the sun beaming down. I think that would just be amazing. I think that the biggest thing would be, and this is for human kind, is how did you find your inner peace? Because it’s about being at peace with yourself to be able to deal with the complexities of the world. You can take anything that comes at you as long as you’re at peace with yourself. How do you find your inner peace? We all think we have it, but we don’t because there’s always something that’s going to bother us. There’s always something that’s going to intimidate us. There’s always something that’s going to antagonize us.

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