Katrina Adams, OWN THE ARENA

Katrina Adams, OWN THE ARENA

Tennis guru and head of the USTA Katrina Adams talks about her success on and off the court — including her role in a dramatic moment with Serena Williams — in this candid chat between two tennis lovers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katrina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Katrina Adams: Thank you for having me. Moms do have time to read books.

Zibby: I agree. They have to make time.

Katrina: Or they can listen to them. They can listen to the books. There we go.

Zibby: That’s true. They can listen. There are so many ways as long as they hear about great books like yours, which is the point of this podcast, your book, Own the Arena: Getting Ahead, Making a Difference, and Succeeding as the Only One. Katrina, I am a huge, huge tennis fan. My husband was in the professional tennis world for over ten years. I hung on every word of this book. I was so excited to read it. Thank you for writing it. Tell listeners a little about the book and what inspired you to write it.

Katrina: First of all, thank you for those kind words. That really inspires me as the word starts to get out and the book starts to get read, preliminarily anyway, before it drops on February 23rd. It was an interesting scenario for me. People, for years, felt that I should write a book, that I had something to tell with all the glass ceilings that I broke being the first of many in so many areas, particularly within the USTA as the first African American, the fourth woman, the first former athlete, a lot of firsts, the first to do two terms, that I had something to share. It’s not a biography or autobiography. It’s not a memoir. It really is using the life skills that I’ve learned through the sport of tennis from the beginning of my career at the tender age of six through today that prepared me for a lot of different scenarios and situations that I encountered through my career thus far. Part of it is the subtitle, Getting Ahead, Making a Difference, and Succeeding as the Only One, is either as the only woman or the only African American or only person of color in either the room or at the table and what that felt like. How did I overcome situations or really use it to my advantage to get ahead?

Zibby: Amazing. I love how you talk about, even from the beginning, how you discovered your love of tennis and how you were attracted to tennis balls because they were just so fuzzy and nice to feel. You realized when you played tennis and your brothers were there and couldn’t grasp skills as much that you were such a visual learner. Anything your coach taught you, you could immediately do. That is such a gift. Then you just continued to pursue it. That’s amazing.

Katrina: I know. I’m very fortunate. I am a visual learner. I picked up tennis that way initially. I picked up golf later in life that way by watching others. It’s something that is innate. Not everyone has that talent. I did use it to my advantage. For anybody, though, as long as you have the passion to want to do something and succeed, you can. Those are things that I talk about throughout the book. I’m very keen on recognizing that I didn’t get here alone. I stood on dozens and dozens of people’s shoulders along the way to help me succeed. It’s important that you recognize those and give back. I’m about reaching back and pulling forward, particularly in working with youth of today and for tomorrow. It’s also recognizing those that came before you that gave me the opportunity. If many of those people weren’t in the right place at the right time, I might not have succeeded.

Zibby: There are parts of the book where you’re talking about your sense of quiet confidence and how people say you have a strut to you and this inner confidence. Yet there are other parts where you’re breaking out in hives because you’re about to take on a new responsibility at the USTA or something like that. Tell me about projecting and even having this sense of inner confidence but then how sometimes these things catch up with you.

Katrina: I used to describe myself as very quiet and shy because I am. I really am in an arena that I’m not familiar with. I like to sit back, observe, feel out the crowd and the people before I actually thrust myself into that stage. When I became the president of the USTA, I recognized that I couldn’t just sit back. I literally had to thrust myself forward and be the center of attention. I will say that I broke out into hives giving the biggest speech of my career at that time just with the stress of wanting to give the right message, to want to be received, and to want to have the support needed following that speech. That was a learning process for me in that. Then yet I can be on center stage and giving a speech to millions of people in a different light. That confidence really comes from what the sport of tennis taught me, all the training and all the hours put into it and being prepared. As long as you’re prepared, you can kind of eliminate some of the stressors that come with it. It doesn’t take away the nerves. I always say if you’re not nervous, then you’re not living. You should have some butterflies before any big engagement because it shows that you care. If you don’t have the nerves and you’re just going out there, then it’s just all words. It’s not something that you really stand behind. I try not to take the podium or the stage or the mic without having some passion or some real feelings behind what I’m saying.

Zibby: I feel like if I’m ever about to get up on a stage, I get this complete, like you were talking about, the butterflies. It’s such a physical thing. I have to tell myself not to let that affect me emotionally or intelligently. I’m like, oh, I’m just going to watch as my body freaks out here. It’s going to go away as I talk. I’m just going to be aware of it, not let it get me off course.

Katrina: Absolutely. Some of the things that I talk about in the book is really about owning your voice. Recognize that your voice matters, owning your identity, male, female, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, LGBTQ, whatever. Own your identity. Don’t be ashamed of it. Use it to your advantage to make sure that you can have diversity of thought in the room or in the meeting or at the table. You want to own the table, not just be a member at the table. You don’t want to just be invited. You want to come in prepared and be able to own it someday because you’re prepared and understand what it takes and you’re learning along the way. There’s so many other anecdotes that are within the book. Hopefully, those of you that are buying it will read it and will really take ownership of it and see yourself in those positions.

Zibby: It’s so true. You had a whole passage, and I just want to read a sentence or two. You said, “That sense of owning the arena isn’t entitlement, it’s not arrogance, and it doesn’t announce itself with brashness. It’s more like a quiet confidence. I’ve had a silent-yet-unwavering belief in myself as a leader, but I’m well-aware that it’s not the way everyone sees me. Intentionally or not, people judge me differently as a woman of color. I must hold myself to a much higher standard than someone else in my position, never allowing myself to relax or let my guard down while I’m in the public eye. I can sometimes present as guarded to prevent people from coming at me being micro-aggressive or beyond. Unfortunately, in America, most white people’s rare exposure to black people is through news programs, not on a regular person level.” Then you continue on from there. Can you just talk a little about that passage?

Katrina: It’s true. I think some of my defense mechanisms come from being a professional athlete, being in big arenas and people always wanting to get to you for something, whether it’s an autograph or just a conversation or what have you. I was always one to stop for autographs all the time, but there’s a time and place for everything. I think that some would describe me of have such a stoic look or not being open or being approachable. That’s from the tennis competitive side. Then when you get into the business side, you have to soften up. The latter part of that is what we’ve witnessed in America this past year, particularly with the racial pandemic. It’s important for people to realize that the unconscious biases are conscious, in my opinion. If you are raised in a certain environment and you don’t have experience of being around people of color, no matter what color that is, you only know what you’ve heard or read. Therefore, your defense mechanisms automatically go up if it’s a negative experience that you’ve watched or read or heard. At the end of the day, we’re all humans. We bleed red. We’re trying to survive in this place called Earth. We need everybody’s support to be able to accomplish the goals that we have. Those are the micro-aggressions that I was referring to.

Zibby: You also do a really good job of explaining what has been in popular parlance right now a lot. You do a particularly good job of clarifying why it’s so offensive when people say, when they see you, “I don’t see you as a black woman. I don’t see color.” You do such a good job of just being like, well, then you’re not seeing me. That’s part of me. You’re ignoring a big piece of who I am.

Katrina: It’s true. I’ve been told this for many years. I think there was a time that I actually thought that that was a positive, that you didn’t see me as black. Then as you get older and you recognize that’s my strength, that’s who I am. That’s why I do the things that I do and how I do them. It’s okay for you to recognize me as black because I’m recognizing you as white. It’s the first thing I see when I walk in a room. It’s not a negative. It’s just to say it’s how we identify one another. If you are accepting my talent and my words and my wisdom and you don’t want to recognize that it’s coming from a black woman, then that’s a problem. That’s what I’m trying to relay in that. Give me the credit for that. We all want to be equal. At the end of the day, this is America. That’s how we identify one another, but it’s also globally how we recognize one another, by the color of our skin.

Zibby: It’s as if somebody walks into a room and someone’s extremely short, perhaps me at 5’2″ or someone’s really tall. I’m not going to hide it. It is what it is. Now let’s get that out of the way and just go on and have our conversation even though I’m only 5’2″ and you’re a giant.

Katrina: Absolutely. I don’t know if I put this in the book, but I always use an example of most people of color in the corporate world when we go to big conventions or big meetings, etc. We may be five or ten or twelve in certain groups. We tend to gravitate to each other. The first people that you speak to, you connect eyes with one another and acknowledge them. Then you end up gravitating. If we are a group of small women in a predominately male room, what do we do? We first reach out to the other women in the room. We recognize because we’re familiar and we’re comfortable. I try to tell people to reverse the scenario. If you are a white person and you are a minority in a majority-black environment or Asian environment or Hispanic environment, what’s the first thing you do? You recognize those that look like you first. You gravitate to them. If people just can reverse the roles sometimes, they’ll understand what it means to be in our shoes and in our skin the majority of our lives, particularly in corporate America.

Zibby: I’m on a board of a hospital. Our board meetings, there must be like sixty-five people in the room. I’m like, what is even the point of this? Why are we all sitting here? Anyway, there are only five, ten women. Just like you say, I’m always like, little extra, hey, down there. Here I am in my skirt while they’re all in suits. I think it’s human nature to want to connect with people, and you start with the people — enough on that. Let’s go back to tennis because, as I said, I’m a huge tennis fan. I love how you even describe step by step as if I’m watching the movie of you going through this whole Serena Williams-Naomi drama that played out at the US Open that I was there for and got to witness. Now that I can remember where I was, now I can picture you scurrying around and in the president’s box and running around and all the aftermath of that you had to go through. Tell me a little bit about that and how you woke up trending and had to figure out how to handle it.

Katrina: It was a surreal moment. It was something that I could replay in my head over and over and over again because I think for me, it was probably the first big crisis, if you will, that I had to deal with in that role, in that position. Here it was my final year as the president and chairman. You want to go out with a bang. Well, I went out with a bang. Having been a player, it was also a situation of putting myself in both their shoes and trying to understand what they were feeling on the day at the end, not so much during the match because everything is real time and you don’t really know what’s happening sometimes. Again, I missed a big part of that, which is what I explain in the book. It was a moment of just trying to bring calm and peace to everyone, first of all, in the stadium and those that were watching on television. As I think I said, the people at home probably saw and heard more than those of us that were actually there in the stadium. I wanted to bring clarity to the situation, to my thoughts, to my words, to my intent. I’m at peace with that because at the end of the day, the person that was affected the most, in my opinion, was Naomi Osaka who I had to chance to speak to following the events. It brings me peace. I can move forward and talk about it freely. There’s nothing new that’s in the book that people didn’t know about except for my thoughts, perhaps, that I feel that I articulated on the interviews following that evening. Hopefully, it kind of, like you said, brings you closer to the event. Maybe you can come to your own conclusions.

Zibby: I know you do a lot now still helping younger tennis players find their way and all that. Tell me about the nonprofits you’re involved in. Also, do you play tennis still yourself at all? Do you get out there?

Katrina: The latter part is I will be back on the court soon. I had a knee surgery this past November that I’ve been putting off for about six or seven years. I’ve had nothing but time to do physical therapy now. Whereas before, I never really had the time to shut down for two or three months to do so. I will be back on the court hopefully a lot more in the near future than I have in recent times. The first part was, yeah, I run the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program which is an NJTL chapter, National Junior Tennis & Learning Network chapter, which is overseen by the USTA Foundation as far as funding is concerned. We’re celebrating fifty years next year in 2022. I’ve been there fifteen years. We really focus on our inner-city kids more so in the Harlem community. We do work with other kids in a metropolitan area. It’s really to get kids engaged in our sport, introduce it to them. Hopefully, they can learn the life skills that will help them propel and be successful in the long run. Not everybody becomes a professional tennis player. James Blake actually is a product of that program from way back when. We put a lot of kids in college, many young college scholarships that are playing tennis. That’s really what I’m focusing on right now on a local basis. I’m involved in a lot of nonprofits, but that’s where my passion is. It really requires raising the funds to make sure that we can provide a top-quality program. We have a registration fee. We’re not charging kids a thousand dollars a week like some New York programs do. We raise the money so that we can support them in these efforts. It’s tennis, education, and wellness components that we provide for them.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Tell me just a little about writing this actual book. I am grateful or happy that you listened to the people who suggested you should write a memoir because I’m so glad you did. This is great proof of why, because it’s a great read among other things. Tell me about writing it. Did you sit down to do it? How long did it take you? Did you dictate? What was the process like for you?

Katrina: It was a collaboration. I did work with a ghostwriter that gave me the direction, if you will, on what to think about, what to talk about, what to write about. Over the course of goo-gobs of conversations with the ghostwriter and emails and recordings, a lot of this came together. They, on the other hand, did a lot of interviews with a long list of people that I felt could articulate their experiences with me from the beginning until today to be able to put those words together as well. It was definitely a collaboration. It was a lengthy process. It’s something that I didn’t appreciate early on. I really appreciate it on the back end as it was really starting to come together and look like a book. It was a lot of piece-making together of different thoughts, different ideas, and trying to figure out where they actually go. I’m really proud of the end product.

Zibby: That’s awesome. That’s so great. What advice would you have, I would say both to people hoping to write books themselves, but really, people who find themselves maybe as the only one in a lot of circumstances? What would you say to all of them?

Katrina: Those that are the only ones is recognize why you’re at the table, why you’re in the room, why you are a part of that. My goal is not to be the only one. I like being the first, meaning that there’s others coming behind. Being the only one can be daunting. There’s a lot of pressure on that. If you’re working to make sure that you can bring others along the way with you, whether it’s in a board or in your C-suite or whatever that might be, then you’re doing your duty to yourself. You’re being a mentor to others. You’re being a sponsor for others. That’s very important. If you’re interested in writing a book, I think you need to identify what your end goal is. Our goal kind of changed midway through in writing for one direction and then ended up going in the direction that we finalized it to be, which I think was the right path. Sit down and write that outline out. What is it that you’re trying to accomplish? What is it that you’re trying to relay within the messages of the book? Just start writing. In the middle of the night, I would wake up and most of my greatest thinking was while I was sleeping. I would go, oh, my gosh, there’s no way I’m going to remember this in the morning. I had a notepad by my bed. I would just scribble sometimes in the dark or just trying to write key words that would trigger what I was thinking about or dreaming about, for that matter, or even being able to do a voice recorder. These phones have the voice memo on that. Utilize it. Over time, you’ll be able to put it together and come out with, hopefully, a best seller.

Zibby: This is great. All you have to do is keep going back to sleep and you’ll get more and more books under your belt.

Katrina: I don’t get enough sleep. That’s the problem.

Zibby: It’s the greatest excuse to just go to bed early. I love it. Katrina, thank you so much. Thanks for your book, the inspiration. It’s so well-written. I feel like now it needs to be a movie. I’m sure you’re working on that. Thanks for chatting with me about it. I really appreciate it.

Katrina: Thanks for having me. Really, thank you.

Zibby: Bye.

Katrina: Buh-bye.

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