CHICAGO — A former professional tennis player, executive and author, Kat Adams has been an inspiration to many on and off the court for years, which all started in her tightly-knit Garfield Park neighborhood.
Adams picked up her first racket at the age of 6 and began playing the sport on Chicago Park District courts at around that time.
“To me it was about the culture, it was about the village that I had surround me that supported me. I had a ton of people that were always uplifting me, nudging me, pushing me forward any way they could,” Adams said.
Both of her parents were educators in the Chicago Public Schools system. They supported her and her siblings greatly in the endeavors.
It was at the Martin Luther King Jr. Boys and Girls Club that Adams’ talent began to really blossom.
“When I did finally have the opportunity to step on the court and hit the ball over the net and into the court, I fell in love with it right away,” Adams said.
What Adams said many do not know about is the amazing tennis following within Chicago’s Black community that goes back generations. Adams credits this heritage with making it easier to hone in on her craft.
“Tennis was a very vibrant sport in the ’70s, particularly here in Chicago and amongst our Black tennis groups. Chicago Prairie Tennis club is the oldest Black tennis organization,” Adams said.
After graduating from Whitney Young High School, Adams went on to set records at Northwestern University, winning the NCAA Women’s Doubles in 1987.
Adams went on to have an illustrious professional career, winning 20 doubles titles in a career that included several matchups against the Williams sisters.
“I was the generation before Venus and Serena, I overlapped with them and played against them a few times. Serena was actually my last loss in my single match,” Adams said.
Off the court, Adams made a bigger impact in the sport than most, taking a job as President and CEO of the US Tennis Association.
Adams was breaking multiple glass ceilings all at once.
“I was the fourth woman but as the first African-American, that was the most pressure, just because I want to make sure I did it right to open the doors for others who come behind me,” Adams said.
During her unprecedented two consecutive terms, Adams advocated for diversity in the game and continues to do so to this day.
Advocacy that Adams said was not easy or always well-received.
“I always felt that when I came off the stage, everyone would say, ‘oh you are so articulate’ Well, what did you expect from me,” Adams said.
Adams said last year the US Open saw a record number of Black women competing, something Adams believes she has had a hand in.
While the sport isn’t as diverse on the national level, Adams’ experience has always been that tennis is a sport for everyone, regardless of race and background.
“Funny thing is when I started playing tennis, I didn’t know it wasn’t a Black sport. Because my program was Black, my coaches were Black, for the next year and a half every program I played was Black,” Adams said.
Adams chronicles these experiences on and off the court in her new book, ‘Own the Arena.’
“All of the life skills you learn as a tennis player is the same thing you need to be successful in life which obviously is business,” Adams said.
Today, Adams is Vice President of the International Tennis Federation, while regularly appearing on a TV talk show in New York. Adams also runs a youth tennis program in New York working to introduce the sport to inner city youth.
“That is something that I think we as African-Americans and people of color need to take pride and dignity and stand up tall as to who we are and represent,” Adams said.