How USTA president Katrina Adams turned tennis into a long-term career

Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Katrina Adams, center, who played collegiate tennis at Northwestern University, is the president and chief executive officer of the United States Tennis Association.

As Katrina Adams retired from professional tennis, she knew she wanted to pursue TV commentating. At the time, she had very little experience, but she didn't let that stop her. Looking back, she credits her self-confidence for getting her a television career that spanned at least a decade.   

In 2014, she was named the chairman, chief executive officer and president of the United States Tennis Association, becoming the first former tennis pro, the first African-American and the youngest person to serve in the role.

Ahead of espnW's Campus Conversations event at Northwestern University, we talked to Adams about leaving college, becoming a tennis pro and pivoting her tennis success into a long-term career.

This interview has been edited for length.

espnW: When you were ending your tennis career in college, how did you make the decision to go pro?

Katrina Adams: I think tennis is very different than most of the other sports when you have the opportunity to go pro. For me, it was pretty simple. Tennis was always an individual sport, and your direct results determined where you could go and what you could do. There wasn't so much fear, because I had solidified myself with a pretty decent world ranking before I technically turned pro. You were able to play professional events while you were a teenager or while you were in school -- just for the points, not for the prize money.

So I actually took a trimester off to test the waters in the fall to see if it was something that I really wanted to continue to do. I was very used to playing week in and week out during the summer, for eight to 10 weeks, and not really beyond that. I didn't want to jump the gun and turn pro without understanding what was out there.

So I met with the [Northwestern] athletic director and my coach to allow me to take that trimester off, and if I did well, I would turn pro in January. If not, I'd come back, keep my scholarship and never talk about it again. Then, I ended up doing well. I was ranked like No. 104 at the end of the year, which got me a direct entry into the Australian Open, and at that point it was a no-brainer. If you get into the main draw of a Grand Slam, then you've made your mark and proved that's where you belong.

espnW: So once you decided to retire from the sport as an athlete, how did you transition into the "working world"?

KA: It was two-fold. I knew that I was approaching my last year on tour. I pretty much decided the beginning of that year that, that was going to be my last year. My body was breaking down, I wasn't having as much fun anymore. I got sought after from the USTA to be a national coach while I was in the middle of the year. It was something that I really had to consider and think about deeply because they wanted me to start in the middle of the summer, in the middle of the Grand Slam season. And I'm like, "Well I'm not finished yet, I'm still competing."

But a position became available and they reached out to me, so I really had to think long and hard that -- is that really what I want to do, do I really want to stop cold in my last year? So, when you look at the opportunities, you look at financials and, "OK, I can actually get off the road," I decided to do it, and I made a deal with them. 

So I had a ready-made career that was there for me. At that time I really had no administrative skills whatsoever, but it was an opportunity for me to learn. My main job was on the court with the kids, but I still had to understand and do a budget and keep up with files, etc. So I kind of learned on the job. Fortunately I had a brain to do that.

I did that for about four, four-and-a-half years, and then I decided I physically did not want to be on the court consistently like that. I was actually on the court more as a coach than I was as a competitor.

As athletes, the biggest asset that we bring to the workplace is our work ethic, our confidence, our never-say-die attitude. We're about winning.
USTA president Katrina Adams

I took a break and sat back and said, "OK, where do I want to go? What can I do?" I knew I wanted to commentate at some point, and I went after it. I was at an event in Los Angeles with the WTA Tour Finals that were at the Staples Center. ... So I started talking and meeting with people within the sport about what opportunities were out there and where I felt I could fit in. I got wind that Tennis Channel was forming; it had not yet started. And I knew the CEO at the time and got an opportunity to go and meet with one of the producers.

I had relatively no experience. I had done some commentary work for Eurosport overseas. I sat in as a guest analyst here and there in my career, but nothing extensive. This was in 2002 -- it was a time when Venus and Serena [Williams] were No. 1 and No. 2 in the world. And I was very good friends with them, so I started to look at everything holistically to say, "What's missing? What's missing in the commentary world?" And the one thing that was missing was diversity.

How could we be lacking diversity in the booth when our Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world are diverse? I used that as an asset in my discussions and basically went in to Tennis Channel and told them that they needed me more than I needed them.

I went into the whole reason of, listen, your Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world are African-American. I've played with and against them, I know them, I'm great friends with them, they're very difficult to get interviews with, and I know they're not going to turn me down if I ask them to do X, Y and Z. Furthermore, I've had some skill in commentating -- not a lot, but I'm a quick learner, and I'll do you proud. But you need someone who looks like me on your television screen when you come on air because that's really going to give you huge props right off the bat.

And they bought it. ...

And that's how my career outside of being on the court started. I love telling the story because it's just so me with my bold attitude and telling people, you need me more than I need you. But it worked, and I think it's the type of mentality that they needed from an analyst too, to say, "OK, you're pretty confident and very sure of what you're saying and what you're about and who you're about."

I never looked back -- I did it consistently for at least 10 or 11 years until I got more deeply involved with the USTA.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Katrina Adams convinced TV producers that they needed diversity in the booth when the top two women's tennis players were Venus and Serena Williams.

espnW: It sounds like that's the type of self-confidence you had been building for a long time, given that tennis is such an individual sport. What other lessons did you learn from being an athlete that you've brought to the workplace?

KA: As athletes, the biggest asset that we bring to the workplace is our work ethic, our confidence, our never-say-die attitude. We're about winning. So you work hard to make sure that you can accomplish whatever your goal is or to finish your task. We don't really leave tasks undone because that's not how we train, and that's not how we were trained, mentally or physically.

And being able to communicate with others -- you have to work together, even those in an individual sport. I still had to work with my coach, or my trainer, or whomever, and take advice. Athletes, that's just how we're made up. When you can bring that collaborative attitude to the workplace, with the level of intensity that we also bring, I think it's very positive for any industry to have former athletes in their workplace.

espnW: What advice would you have for a young woman student-athlete who's a senior, and who's maybe staring down the end of her athletic career and hasn't had time to focus on what to do next?

KA: You need to understand what your personality is. ... A lot of people don't go into the field that they major in because they realize their personality may not fit that major, or things have changed since they started focusing on the major, and they gained other interests.

It's really about networking. Make sure that you're reaching out to either former alums or -- if you've done research -- people who were former athletes in their respective sports who have gone on to the industries that you're interested in. You have to make those connections. These student-athletes today, they have everything at their fingertips -- from LinkedIn to any other social media that's out there -- to connect them to a world that we never had.

Be mindful about it. Be smart about it. You don't want to be rambunctious going for it. You want to have a strategy, and the strategy is really about, what are my true positive qualities and what atmosphere works for me? If you're a people person and full of personality and you think you want to go into finance, you gotta figure out which area of finance that is. ... Maybe there's an industry within that, that's not "sales," but you want to be in something where you're out and communicating with others and networking and using your strengths.

I think that's the biggest thing that our student-athletes need to understand. Don't get stuck in a rut or put in a bucket because you majored in one area. And in those areas that we major in, there are so many different facets, there are so many arms that they may not even know about.

espnW: How do you keep fitness and sports as part of your routine?

KA: So, obviously, I'm a tennis player, so tennis is easy and accessible. I don't play as much as I used to, just because of injuries. And I've taken up golf, so I get out and play golf whenever possible. I try to walk when I'm playing golf so I get some exercise in.

But being on the road, it's important to get some kind of fitness in, whether I'm going out on long walks or I'm in the gym. Even if it's just 20 minutes. But you have to get the endorphins going -- that's your energy, that's your sanity.

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