Courtside With Katrina Adams

November 30, 2023, Feature, by Vitisia Paynich

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“Growing up in the local park programs, the Chicago District Tennis Association, the National Junior Tennis and Learning Network, and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) communities allowed me to have physical activity on the courts and develop lifelong friendships off the courts,” Katrina Adams revealed to a large audience of park and recreation professionals. On October 11, Adams, a former Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) player, the first African American to lead the USTA and the first to serve as its two-term chairman and president, presented the keynote for the Day 2 General Session of the 2023 NRPA Annual Conference in Dallas.

Prior to the conference, Parks & Recreation sat down with this leading tennis executive, sports advocate and author of Own the Arena, to discuss her early experiences as a Park and Rec Kid living in Chicago’s West Side, how tennis opened up many doors to new career opportunities, and what park and recreation agencies can do to promote equity in youth sports.

Parks & Recreation: What influence did parks and recreation have on you during your childhood?

Katrina Adams: Well, I got started in the park, so it had a huge influence on me. It’s where I grew up. I was able to walk three, four blocks to [Chicago’s] Garfield Park and play tennis every day in the summertime. The program I started [playing tennis] in was sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Boys Club. And, every summer, they had an activity — that summer happened to be tennis organized by a couple coaches, and it was for kids [ages] 9 to 18. I was actually 6 years old, so I was a tag-along sister. And I had to beg my way into the program because I was there with my two older brothers sitting outside of the fence because I was too young. But after a couple of weeks, I was able to fight my way into the program and I loved it at first hit — and so that was it.

The parks meant everything to me to be able to go and be in the program every day. The program was eight weeks [long], so I only had six weeks in [which I was part of] that program. Summer after summer, I was there in my park, [and then I] started playing at other parks [or] wherever I could play, and [then I] started playing tournaments in parks. So, the parks…had a huge influence on me in my development as a tennis player, but also in just seeing other sports and activities in the park. Chicago has a huge number of parks, and they are very large. So, I was very fortunate to grow up in a city that really utilized the parks and recreation centers for activities for not just youth, but [also] for adults alike.

P&R: As you were playing in these tournaments as a kid, did you start to think you wanted to do this as a profession?

Adams: Well, back in the ’70s…I grew up in a community…where it wasn’t like you saw tennis 24/7 on television and you didn’t really [know tennis] was a professional career. Yes, the adults talked about professional tennis; yes, I saw tennis on television occasionally; yes, I saw Arthur Ashe win Wimbledon that summer [of 1975] beating Jimmy Connors in the finals…. But I still didn’t understand what that meant. I knew that people talked about it, but I was 6 years old. I didn’t know what it meant [at the time] — not until many, many years later. But…every summer, I played tournaments either at Garfield Park, Tuley Park, Lincoln Park, Waveland Park, Jackson Park or Rainbow Park….

P&R: How did your professional tennis career prepare you for your role with the USTA?

Adams: Well, having played on the tour for 12 years at the highest level playing every Grand Slam event, I started developing major relationships across the world — particularly from the WTA Tour leadership. I served on my WTA Players Association Board as well as the WTA Tour Board. So, I started developing these [personal] relationships and business relationships with tournament directors [and] leaders within the industry — not just in America, but globally. After I retired from playing, I was a national coach. I was still out there…building these relationships and networking. When I stopped coaching, I joined the USTA Board, and I really started to understand what we did within our association from a grassroots level. When you’re competing, you know your sport, you know your organization from playing USTA tournaments and getting a USTA ranking, and then ultimately playing the U.S. Open or playing on your USA team, either the Fed Cup team — which is now the Billie Jean King Cup team — or your Davis Cup team. But I didn’t really understand what they did from the grassroots level and up. I didn’t really understand that besides my coaches, they were partly responsible for me developing and advancing; that they actually supported me to be on all the junior teams in the summertime, on the national teams that afforded me the opportunity to go and play the national tournaments. They afforded me the opportunity to play on the USTA collegiate teams in the summers, where I went and played the pro circuit events. So that’s when I really started to say, “Oh, wow! They are much bigger than this. Much bigger than just tournaments.” And I felt obligated…to give back. I wanted to give back because if they gave me the opportunity that I had, then I felt obligated to go and give these same opportunities to thousands of other kids to let them know that “hey, the USTA is a great place and [it’s] an opportunity you can have — not to just be a professional tennis player, but this is a sport for life. And look at the life skills that you’re learning and the friends that you can make and have for a lifetime.”

So that’s how I got involved on the board. And then, as I progressed over the years and became more knowledgeable and became more aware [of] who we were, then I started to say, “I’ve lived this. I’m like the poster child of the USTA. I ate, slept, breathed everything that we stand for, and I have a lot to offer: to give back, to be that voice, to provide the strategic vision of who I think we should be and can be.” That propelled me to want to be the leader of the USTA and [at the time] I had wished I had the opportunity to be the president and chairman.

P&R: What are the physical and mental health benefits that tennis offers today’s youth?

Adams: There’s a study out right now that [found] tennis adds 9.7 years to your life — more than any other sport that’s out there. I think badminton is second and then [soccer]. So, we like to say, “Play tennis, live longer.” That’s kind of our mantra right now. It strengthens your heart, muscles and bones. It allows you to get fit, lose weight [and] burn calories. I mean…tennis [is] the healthiest sport out there. [It] keeps you physically fit, but mentally healthier as well. And, anytime you can promote something that is going to allow you to live longer, that right there allows you to mentally feel stronger and you want to be more engaged. It’s reducing stress levels; you can go out there and release the stress on the court. But it [also] teaches you how to solve problems, which is what we teach our kids. It’s teaching them how to be able to be more disciplined, to build their self-esteem, to build self-confidence, to manage [their] time and be more tactical, more strategic. And these are all the things that they need to be successful in life. And so, these are all, in my opinion, health benefits that have been proven. It’s a mind, body and soul sport.

P&R: During your tenure at the organization, you led outreach into underrepresented communities to introduce tennis to youth. What misconceptions about the sport did you encounter among community members and how did you break down those barriers to achieve your goals?

Adams: I think the misconceptions are that it’s an expensive sport, it’s only for the rich and it’s a country club sport when, in fact, the majority of tennis is played in parks. And people don’t really realize that parks and recreation plays a huge [role] in helping our sport grow. When you think about the baby boomer years, everybody was playing tennis in the parks. And I think people have gone back to that — particularly since [COVID-19] — getting back out in the parks and getting back out in their communities and playing tennis and being active because they can be outdoors and playing. So, that was a misconception in our sport. And being able to introduce our sport to youth in the inner city [with] programs, like my program, the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, has allowed these kids to be introduced to a sport and develop the life skills that I mentioned before, and [break] down those barriers to say, “Hey, maybe they won’t be professional tennis players, but they can at least develop the life skills that are needed to be successful in life.” We have tennis in thousands of schools around the country. And I think those are the things that people don’t understand, and [they don’t] understand that hurdles have been jumped over and broken to deliver our sport to youth in multiple ways.

P&R: According to NRPA’s own research: “Some of the hurdles in youth sports delivery by park and recreation agencies result from resource capacity and budgetary constraints; others result from persistent barriers, such as participation fees that limit lower income families from being able to reap the benefits of youth sports.” How can park and recreation agencies work in concert with nonprofits and corporate partners to make youth tennis more equitable for under-resourced communities?

Adams: Part of it, as I mentioned, is USTA really going into the schools. We are probably in [more than] 20,000 schools across the country. And it’s [about] partnering with those schools and making sure that they’re near parks so that programming can build...from the schools to the park and the park to the schools, [as well as] making sure that there are coaches and volunteers within those parks [and] there’s a place for these kids to go to outside of the schools. So that’s a good start and a good connection there. But I know [at] the USTA within the grants that they have provided…to build and help maintain the courts within the parks, I think they’ve given [more than] $17 million in grants to make sure that they are maintaining these courts throughout these communities. Within the country...they are impacting [more than] $600 million in infrastructure, plus the thousands of free technical support that they are providing to make sure that these businesses are being maintained within the community. So, I think that’s a great partnership that the USTA has helped maintain within the park and recreation community.

P&R: How are organizations like the USTA making tennis more inclusive to players of different abilities?

Adams: One of the most important things that the USTA has always been focused on during my [pre- and] post-presidency is trying to make tennis look like America and inclusive of all abilities, race, gender, ethnicities…. And so…from able bodies to non-able bodies, from wheelchair to adaptive tennis, there are programs that are out there for everybody. The [tennis] clubs, I think, are also trying to make sure that they have programs and clinics for all levels, [ensuring] there’s something for everyone and making sure that the sport is actually and factually accessible for all.

P&R: What impact is pickleball having on the sport of tennis? Do you think it poses a threat to tennis with regard to park and recreation resources (i.e., court space)?

Adams: I think it’s good for the sport. I mean, we’re talking about a racket sport, right? Anytime you’re growing a racket sport, it’s healthy. Anytime you can get people out and being active and having fun, it’s healthy. When you look at what’s happened in the last few years, 6 million [players or 33 percent] growth in tennis, maybe 4.5 million [playing] pickleball — so they’re growing together. You can play them on the same courts. The one thing about our [tennis] courts is they are bigger than everybody else’s, so we learned a long time ago that you can use blended lines on our courts to embrace other courts. So, tennis is embracing pickleball on many levels and making sure that we’re not trying to shut anybody out. I’m not in the [USTA] boardroom anymore, so I’m not sure what they’re talking about. But from my perspective, I love seeing people being active and being out and having fun. I think there’s a place for every sport. So, if pickleball is something that is getting people to be active, who may not have been active for a very long time, and it’s getting them to be excited [and] it’s getting people to be social again, who may not have been, or even getting younger people into the sport — I think it’s healthy.

P&R: What can park and recreation professionals do to promote tennis among their youngest community members?

Adams: First of all, when you’re…trying to get young people [to participate], you’ve got to convince the parents because [they] are the ones who are bringing the kids to the courts. And then, you [have] to make it fun for the kids — so [it’s about] making sure that we are proving to the parents that tennis is a sport for a lifetime; that it is healthy for the mind, body and soul; that it is an equitable sport in so many different ways; and that it can offer friends for a lifetime and healthy benefits for a lifetime.

P&R: Looking at your career as a professional tennis player and then as a tennis executive and advocate for equity in the sport, what legacy do you hope to leave for future generations?

Adams: I think my legacy is all about proving that I’ve given everything to this sport that this sport has given to me...and that is...longevity and a clear pathway to the future. For me, it’s about reaching back and pulling forward; it’s about giving my all with passion, love and respect for those who came before me. And then making sure that those who come behind me leave a clear pathway for the generations after them. So, when we talk about parks and the recreation centers, those are for everyone. I came from them, and I’m appreciative of them. It’s not about how much money you make or where you’re from, it’s about public access. And I want to make sure that my legacy screams that I came from public access, I’ve fought for public access, and I want to make sure that we continue to have public access for everyone. Because if we can continue to provide a clear pathway for development for mind, body and soul — and I think that’s what parks and recreation [does] — then the future ahead of us is bright.

Vitisia Paynich is Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine and Director of Print and Online Content at NRPA.