Katrina Adams’ new book shows mostly white tennis world through the eyes of a Black woman
During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black Stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.
In her book Own the Arena: Getting Ahead, Making a Difference, and Succeeding as the Only One, a smart and stirring work that examines, in part, how difficult it can be for Black people to navigate mostly white organizations, in this case the world of professional tennis, Katrina Adams speaks a blunt truth.
Adams is the first Black and the youngest person ever to serve as president, chairman and CEO of the United States Tennis Association. She was also a highly accomplished player on the WTA tour, winning 20 career doubles titles and reaching the quarterfinals or better in doubles at all four Grand Slam events.
It's what Adams writes about her time at the USTA as its leader that's the most fascinating part about the book.
"One thing I was clear about as president was that I was not placed in the position because of my differences, as a black woman," she writes. "If anything, I was there in spite of them. I believe that my ascension to the USTA president was a testament to my ability to bridge the gap that my differences so easily create, particularly in a culture that for so long did not exactly embrace being different."
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Defending champions Sloane Stephens, left, and Rafael Nadal flank USTA President and CEO Katrina Adams during the reveal of the 2018 U.S. Open draw in New York, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Photo: The Associated Press)
She later writes: "I had a lot of pressure being the 'first.' Being the first former player, the first African American, and the youngest. All eyes were on me, as I would likely be scrutinized more because it was unfamiliar territory for those around me. I had to be extra knowledgeable of decisions and how I represented the organization, especially being black. We have always had to work twice as hard to get recognition for our accomplishments."
Despite the dominance of Serena Williams, and the stardom of other players of color like Naomi Osaka, tennis remains, on the court and in the executive offices, one of the least diverse of all American professional sports.
It's what made Adams' ascension so remarkable, and her words in the book so poignant.
Her navigating of tricky racial waters as the Black head of the USTA is something that will likely resonate with many Black readers. She gives the example of the push by her and Billie Jean King to honor Althea Gibson, who in 1956 became the first Black player to win a Grand Slam title. Adams and King successfully pushed for a statue to honor Gibson.
"I needed someone like Billie Jean to help me get this accomplished," writes Adams. "If I had continued to push for it on my own, it would have been viewed more as a plea for a fellow African American."
Adams also had to deal with the slights and affronts that can be a daily part of Black life.
"I can sometimes present as guarded to prevent people from coming at me, being microaggressive or beyond," she writes. "Unfortunately, in America most white people's rare exposure to black people is through news programs, not on a regular level. As a result, they find it difficult to believe there are competent, intelligent, articulate, and visionary people of color because they are not in our arena. And when they come across us, they may make improper comments. For instance, I had just given a speech and someone came up to me afterward and said, 'What a great speech. You were so articulate.' I did not perceive this as a compliment nor do other black people. Why wouldn't I be able to express my views clearly? Why wouldn't I give a thoughtful and informative delivery of my views? Is this a statement you make to your white friends? I think not."
Adams added: "When the topic of race comes up in conversations, to diffuse the topic my white counterparts would often say, 'I don't see color' or 'I don't see you as black.' Really? How can you not when that's what I am. Those comments actually hurt more than they make me feel embraced. Why? Because it means that you don't see me for who I am. You only see me for what's convenient for you."
Adams doesn't hold back which is why her book is so good.
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