She once aced fellow tennis players like Chris Evert. Now Zina Garrison is serving up a message of giving back.
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Zina Garrison fell asleep. I was interviewing the former fourth-ranked tennis player in the world, who in a fourteen-year career had bested Chris Evert, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, and Martina Navratilova, overcoming jangly nerves through faith in herself and a greater power, and I had sent her to the land of Nod. I had asked a rather long question that was met with an almost equally long pause on the phone. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I fell asleep,” she said upon waking, mortified and apologetic.
The Houstonian had been zipping about as a commentator for the month-long World Team Tennis season on the heels of returning from Wimbledon, where she had spent two weeks commentating for TNT. Understandably, she was tired. Sports stars do that odd thing of retiring at an age when most of us are just getting settled in a career. But the 37-year-old Garrison, who ended her career in 1996 with fourteen singles titles, twenty in doubles, three Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles, and a gold and a bronze medal from the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, seems hardly retired. Besides her work as a broadcaster, she serves as Billie Jean King’s assistant coach of the Federation Cup team, a group of top women professionals in the U.S. who play teams from other countries. She’s in the middle of a two-year term as a director-at-large of the United States Tennis Association, the governing body of amateur tennis in the U.S. She has also been involved in the professional tour’s mentoring program, helping some of the young pros, such as Serena Williams, adjust to the life of a professional tennis player.
But Garrison began giving back to tennis and her community well before her retirement. In 1989 she set up a foundation to provide funds and support for youth organizations and the homeless in Houston. Three years later she started the Zina Garrison All-Court Tennis program for children, which operates at the city’s tennis facilities, including Homer Ford Tennis Center at Garrison’s old childhood haunt, MacGregor Park. The program’s activities are done in coordination with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and funded through private donations and a yearly fundraising gala. “All-Court Tennis is grass roots, an inner-city program that allows kids to play free with quality instruction year-round. We’ve had more than six thousand kids participate since we began. I give all the credit to the seven pros who work with the kids,” she said. Garrison realizes that tennis opened many doors for her: She’s traveled the world and even met the pope and the queen of England. So fame and money are not what’s stressed at All-Court Tennis. “Tennis, like life, is an individual sport, so if you have problems with a shot, you can’t hide it. But you can correct it to get better,” Garrison explained. “You have an opportunity to look at yourself and learn. You can confront your difficulties and move on.
“With the success of All-Court Tennis, Garrison’s life has seemingly come full circle. In her new book, Zina: My Life in Women’s Tennis, the forces that led her to that mission were growing up in a supportive family on Noel Street, in Sunnyside Garden, a black, working-class neighborhood just south of downtown Houston; devoting her childhood years to developing her talent at MacGregor Park; being exposed to racial slights as a young girl excelling in a sport noticeably lacking people of color; and experiencing the goodwill of friends and strangers who helped her succeed.
Garrison’s father, a postman, died when she was six months old. She, her brother, four sisters, and a stepbrother were raised by her mother, a nurse’s aide, and her maternal grandmother. When Garrison was ten, her brother, Rodney, brought her to the attention of John Wilkerson, who ran a year-round junior tennis program at MacGregor Park, and then one day just left Zina at the courts. From then on, the family had a hard time getting her back. During the summer Rodney or another sibling would drop her off at eight in the morning; with great difficulty, they would attempt to retrieve her at eight in the evening.
Over the years, Wilkerson would give her the tools to become a world-class professional tennis player. He also helped her with another part of the game. In the mid-seventies, when Garrison began playing junior tournaments around the state, there weren’t many black players. And her main competition as a junior was Lori McNeil, who also was in Wilkerson’s program and would become a highly ranked professional and partner with Zina for three doubles titles. He had Garrison play American Tennis Association events, as he had done. The ATA was a predominantly black national tennis group that was founded in 1916 by several black doctors, college professors, and businessmen in response to the exclusion of black players from white country clubs and public parks. Garrison, despite receiving help from various tennis enthusiasts who supported junior tennis, said that she was uncomfortable playing Texas events but enjoyed the ATA. Through the ATA, she met Althea Gibson, the first black tennis player to win a Grand Slam tournament, and Arthur Ashe, the first black man to win a Grand Slam event. Both Gibson and Ashe were influences throughout Garrison’s career, especially their commitment to encouraging young players, to giving something back to the game.
Their hard work was rewarded. Garrison became the first black female to be ranked number one in Texas and won the junior title at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Then, in 1982, just before graduating from high school, Garrison decided to turn pro.
She won her share of titles; however, it’s a match against Evert that tennis fans of a certain age remember—the 1989 U.S. Open, which was to be Evert’s final tournament as a professional. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the majority of tennis fans around the world wanted Evert to go out a winner. But in an emotional three-set quarterfinal match, Garrison sent Evert home early. And some fans felt about Garrison the way moviegoers felt about Bruce Dern when he shot John Wayne in The Cowboys. “I’m not offended that people ask me about that match,” Garrison said. “It shows how well respected Chris was. She said if she had to lose to someone, she was glad it was me. I’m glad it was me too.”
Garrison might rank her matches at Wimbledon in 1990 ahead of that one with Evert. In fact, she framed her book around those two weeks in which she beat Monica Seles in the quarterfinals and Steffi Graf in the semis, becoming the first black female to make the singles final of a Grand Slam tournament since Gibson won her second U.S. Open, in 1958 (Garrison eventually lost to Navratilova in the final). Zina is not the usual “My Life Story” an athlete sets down to capitalize on his or her celebrity. The effort is a surprisingly frank, thoughtful examination of her life as a black tennis player—the childhood devoted to tennis, her relationship with other pros on the tour, the subtle and not-so-subtle racism in tennis, her marriage and its decline, her struggle with bulimia. An important thread that runs through it, however, is not so much about her but about the legacy she inherited from Gibson and Ashe which she, McNeil, and others of their generation enhanced and bequeathed to the next. There is no resentment of the acceptance or the clothing and equipment contracts enjoyed by today’s black athletes, just an acknowledgement that there’s still work to do, with the kids in MacGregor Park.