Katrina Adams, tennis’s first African-American president, seeks to diversify the sport
Several black women pros are on the rise, but the recreational ranks are dwindling
As the Australian Open enters its final weekend, the first Grand Slam of the year brings with it a frustrating and perennial question in American tennis circles: Where’s the next great American player?
The decades-long brilliance of the Williams sisters, on full display at this Australian Open, continues to inspire awe. But discounting Venus and Serena (owners of 29 Grand Slam singles titles between them), no active American female player has made it past a Grand Slam semifinal (Alexandra Stevenson at the 1999 Wimbledon; Sloane Stephens at the 2013 Australian Open; Madison Keys at the 2015 Australian Open; and now Coco Vandeweghe in a surprise run). And no American man has advanced beyond a major quarterfinal (John Isner at the 2011 U.S. Open).
This fact is not lost on U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) president Katrina Adams, a former professional player who once ranked as high as No. 8 in the world in doubles. Adams recently began an unprecedented second two-year term as the head of American tennis. Her mandate, however, is not only to help produce the next great American champion, but to grow the sport at all levels.
And as the USTA’s first black president, Adams has a unique and personal link to the rich history of African-American achievement in the sport. “I look at myself going from the public courts to the boardroom, and I think every child needs to understand that no matter where you start, you can rise to the highest levels,” Adams told The Undefeated in an exclusive interview shortly before the Australian Open.
At the professional level, the prospects for young African-Americans are encouraging. On the women’s side, five of the six active Americans to reach a Grand Slam semifinal are African-American. And Stephens, 23, and Keys, 21, presumably have their best tennis ahead of them — though both skipped the Australian Open with injuries. (Stevenson, whose father is basketball legend Julius Erving, is 36, has battled injuries, and now sits outside the top 500.) On the men’s side, the tennis cognoscenti have pegged 18-year-old Francis Tiafoe, ranked 107 coming into the Australian Open, where he fell in the second round, as a potential champion, and 19-year-old Michael Mmoh, ranked 195, is also likely to rise quickly.
But at the grassroots level, the picture isn’t as rosy. For more than 25 years, the USTA has sought to diversify the sport. Still, “white adolescents are almost twice as likely to participate in tennis … as African American or Latino/a youth,” wrote sociologists Douglas Hartmann and Alex Manning in a 2016 collection of academic essays. They noted that “77 percent of participants in youth tennis are white (compared with 9 and 14 percent African American and Latino/a).”
And it appears that African-American interest in the sport is dwindling. According to the latest data from the Tennis Industry Association, overall American participation in tennis grew slightly in 2015 from the previous year, including a 12.2 percent jump in Hispanic participation — an underserved community that Adams targeted in one of her first acts as USTA president. But African-American participation fell by almost 2 percent that same year. African-Americans, acknowledges the USTA’s African-American Engagement Guide, “are much less likely to play than many other groups, and their participation numbers are on the decline.”
Adams, 48, grew up on Chicago’s West Side in a middle-class neighborhood and began playing tennis when she was 6 — the same year that Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon. “I started out in a black program,” she said. She showed such early talent that she played with older boys in the Martin Luther King Jr. Boys Club program. As she improved, she became one of only a handful of girls of color on the competitive junior circuit, frequenting the posh, predominantly white clubs of the suburbs.
But she “never went into any club or any program or any tournament thinking that I was different,” Adams said. “I didn’t grow up in a racist tennis environment.”
It may have had a lot to do with the cosmopolitan character of Chicago, she added. “I would probably say my parents looked at it differently,” she said. “It was their job to protect me from those elements, and it’s probably why I never experienced it or thought anything different, because they raised me to be an equal to everyone.”
Adams’ parents, James and Yvonne, weren’t tennis players, but they were old enough to remember when tennis, like other sports, was segregated. In 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson first donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, Harlem’s 23-year-old Althea Gibson was invited to compete at the U.S. National Championships, the precursor of the U.S. Open, in Forest Hills in New York, officially breaking tennis’s color line. Gibson would go on to win five Grand Slam singles titles and six doubles titles and, remarkably, help integrate professional golf when, in 1964, she became the first African-American to compete on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour.
Today, Adams said, “there are no barriers to entry to the sport,” citing thousands of free to nearly-free youth tennis programs across the country, either under the auspices of the USTA’s National Junior Tennis and Learning programs or independent community organizations. That may be true, but significant improvement only comes with more focused and structured instruction that can be prohibitively expensive. Just to rent an indoor court in New York City, for instance, can cost upward of $100 per hour. And even at public facilities throughout the country, one-on-one lessons with a teaching pro typically cost more than $50 per hour.
There are numerous organizations that offer heavily-discounted intermediate and advanced instruction. At the not-for-profit Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, where Adams served as the executive director and remains a board member, 10-week packages that include 30 hours of court instruction and more than 10 hours of scholastic instruction start at $275. It serves 1,000 kids during the school year and about 300 in the summer. The Venus & Serena Williams Tutorial Tennis Academy in Los Angeles offers a five-day winter camp of tennis and field trips for $300. At the XS Tennis and Education Foundation on the South Side of Chicago, which serves 2,300 youths a year, small-group tennis lessons start at $12 per hour.
But even at that reduced rate, said XS Tennis founder Kamau Murray (who also currently coaches Stephens), tennis is a more expensive proposition than other sports. “You can play basketball for a year for the price of what it takes to play tennis for two months,” he said.
And if a talented junior pursues a top national ranking, the costs can skyrocket. Bob Davis, who operates the web site blacktennishistory.com and consults for Florida’s IMG Academy, estimates that it can cost families $100,000 per year to maintain a child’s top ranking. Expenses include private coaching, equipment, and travel. The junior tour’s top tournaments span the country, plus there’s an international junior circuit and the prestigious junior tournaments at each Grand Slam event. And given the disparity between white and African-American wealth in the United States — in 2014, the median income for African-American households was $43,300 and $71,300 for white households — it’s little wonder that there have been relatively few African-Americans in the game’s top ranks. And it’s why the stories of the Williams sisters (whose driven father, Richard, taught them the game in Compton, California) and up-and-comer Tiafoe (whose immigrant father was a janitor at a tennis club) are so remarkable.
The USTA generates about $200 million annually, most of which comes from the proceeds of the U.S. Open. It spends about $30 million each year on elite player development — earlier this month Adams flew to Orlando, Florida, to unveil the USTA’s new $63 million training and recreational campus — and another $5.5 million on grants, scholarships, and other services targeting underserved communities.
But the money is spread thinly. “I asked the USTA for some money in December to help with traveling costs, and they said they didn’t have any,” said Gayal Black, the mother of two talented African-American players, 15-year-old Hurricane Tyra Black and 18-year-old Tornado Alicia Black. A single mother who teaches tennis in Florida for a living, Gayal Black says her daughters — Hurricane is ranked 11th in her age group nationally, according to the Tennis Recruiting Network; Tornado was professionally ranked 404 in the world two years ago but has been hampered by injuries — can’t play a full schedule because they lack money for travel.
The USTA has helped the Blacks in the past, and will help them to travel to some smaller tournaments in the spring, Gayal Black said. And while Hurricane played in this year’s Australian Open juniors, losing in the first round, she lodged with a family friend and her mother stayed in Boca Raton, Florida, to save money.
Zina Garrison, who went to Wimbledon singles final in 1990 and won Olympic gold in doubles, said the USTA can’t shoulder the responsibility of diversifying the sport on its own. “The USTA is an organization with a lot of other responsibilities,” said Garrison, who operates a tennis academy in her hometown of Houston. “I think you need to look at the grassroots, like what myself and [and fellow African-American ex-pro Lori McNeil] are doing here in Houston, what Kamau’s doing in Chicago, and reach out to schools, communities, and local leaders.”
Does it matter how many African-Americans play tennis — at any level? Aren’t there other areas of society — boardrooms, legal offices, medical schools — where diversity is more important? Adams has said “we need to make sure tennis looks like America.” But she also stressed to The Undefeated that youth participation in the sport could lead to educational opportunities. Speaking of her work at the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, Adams said, “It’s about making sure these kids know that tennis is an opportunity not only for them to better develop themselves as people, but it’s a vehicle for them to earn a college scholarship, not only through tennis, but through education.”
Murray echoes that sentiment, and said he tells parents to think of tennis training for their children as “an investment that will save you money in college tuition.”
“Let’s put this in the same realm as tutoring — not necessarily an after-school game,” he said. “This is something you’re doing that will increase the marketability for your child to college. And I point to the fact that 39 kids have gone from my program to Division I schools on scholarship.”
It’s true that there are about 8,000 NCAA tennis scholarships available. But at least a third of them go to foreign players, which is a contentious issue, especially since college tennis isn’t a revenue-producing sport. “I’m not sure why American taxpayers should subsidize a kid from Germany to play tennis,” said Wayne Bryan, whose twin sons, Bob and Mike, played for Stanford on scholarships before embarking on their professional careers as a doubles team.
And who’s to say, if college admittance is the goal, that youths wouldn’t be better served studying chemistry than honing their forehands?
But tennis advocates say the game is different from football and basketball, team sports that draw a disproportionate number of African-American participants. “It’s not just that in tennis you have to be self-reliant and figure the game out by yourself, it’s that tennis historically has been part of the story of African-American socioeconomic achievement,” Davis said. “Slavery was abolished in 1865, and over the next 50 years we saw the development of a black middle class, mostly teachers and doctors. These are the people who in 1916, when the sport was segregated, founded the American Tennis Association,” a tennis organization for African-Americans that helped produce Ashe and Gibson. (Unlike baseball’s Negro leagues, the association exists today, though its role in tennis has waned with integration.)
“The most educated among us in the black community felt tennis was something that we should teach our children,” Davis said. “I grew up playing the game in Harlem 60 years ago surrounded by doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. And now I play in an over-70s league in Florida — you don’t find many 70-year-olds playing football — and everyone is highly educated.”
Adams said that being the first African-American to head the sport in the United States is a “great image to the rest of the country,” adding that “hopefully I won’t be the last one.” She points to the diversity of the USTA board — “five women, two African-Americans, two Asian-Americans, two Hispanics, and six Caucasians, one of whom is LGBT” — as a sign that the sport’s highest offices are now more reflective of the country as a whole. But the USTA needs help to continue to grow and diversify the sport, Adams said. “You need more people that have big hearts and open minds and understand what that opportunity means to that child, and just how far they may be able to go if given the opportunity.”