Garrison, Zina 1963–
Zina Garrison 1963–
Professional tennis player
Zina Garrison, one of the world’s top-ranked professional tennis players, has overcome fantastic odds to advance to the elite ranks of her sport. A product of the Houston, Texas playgrounds— rather than some posh country club—Garrison has overcome family tragedy, emotional maladjustment, and even bigotry to make a name for herself in a game that is still almost all white. According to Kenny Moore and J. E. Vader in Sports Illustrated, Garrison “seems a splendid example of how bravery and sport may combine to recreate a personality. She has begun to thrive in a world that her deepest instinct once told her would be nothing but loneliness.”
Since her professional debut in 1982, Garrison has always been ranked somewhere within the top twenty women players worldwide. Her highest ranking—fourth— came in 1990, when she won the French Open and advanced to the finals at Wimbledon, only to be defeated by Martina Navratilova. That year she beat such stars as Steffi Graf and Monica Seles and seemed well on her way to fame with endorsement contracts and media attention. However, a cloud of doubt still hangs over Garrison and her game. She has yet to win a major Grand Slam tournament, and she has earned an unenviable reputation for losing her cool when the game is on the line. Garrison told the Chicago Tribune: “It is true that in crucial situations, I have lost matches. But I knew I was giving 110 percent.”
The youngest in a family of seven children, Garrison was born in Houston in 1963. Her mother was 42 years old at the time, and most of the other children were grown and beginning their careers. In fact, the first doctor to examine Mrs. Garrison suggested that the growth in her stomach might be a tumor. A second opinion confirmed a pregnancy. Garrison is reportedly named Zina for the last letter in the alphabet, and she was indeed the last child born to her family. Her four older sisters called her Tumorlina, after the inaccurate diagnosis her mother received.
Growing up, Garrison was a quiet, wary child. She was gifted with astonishing clairvoyance and could make predictions about everything from the sex of unborn children to the future. “When we were growing up, she used to trip us out,” her brother Rodney told Sports Illustrated. “She always saw visions, and when she was
Born in 1963 in Houston, TX; daughter of Ulysses (a postman) and Mary Garrison; married Willard Jackson (president of a hazardous waste disposal company), 1989.
Amateur tennis player, 1974-82; professional tennis player, 1982—. As amateur, won both Wimbledon Juniors and the Junior U.S. Open, 1981. Has reached semifinals in a Grand Slam tennis event in 1983, 1985, 1988, 1989, and 1990. Won French Open and advanced to Wimbledon finals, 1990. Has consistently been ranked among top twenty professional women tennis players in the world since 1982.
Selected awards: Voted “most impressive newcomer” by Women’s International Tennis Association, 1982; won bronze medal in singles tennis and gold medal in doubles tennis at Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, 1988.
away she always seemed to know when something was happening at home. We called her the Vision Girl.”
Tragedy struck the Garrison family when Zina was eleven months old. Her father, a postman, suffered a fatal stroke. A few months later her 21-year-old brother Willie was struck in the eye by a baseball and developed a fatal tumor. The sudden losses bound Zina tightly to her mother. Each took solace in the company of the other. In a Sports Illustrated interview, Garrison remembered her mother as “the only thing I had,” adding, “I was always underfoot and tagging along.”
The Garrisons lived in a predominately black working-class section of Houston. Unlike her older sisters, Zina was a tomboy who loved rough-and-tumble games. “My sisters didn’t like to sweat,” she told Sports Illustrated. “But I loved to run and dance and play softball.” Her brother Rodney became a favorite, and she often followed him to nearby MacGregor Park, a municipal playground with tennis courts. She began hanging around the courts, watching local coach John Wilkerson give private lessons.
Eventually Wilkerson gave her a wooden racket and showed her the fundamentals of the game. He quickly discovered that she had a natural talent for the sport as well as the drive to perfect her talent. As Moore and Vader put it, “The kid was fast, and she hit the ball with might and pleasure. Tennis was running, dancing and batting all rolled into one.” The reporters added: “Garrison’s attraction to the game had little to do with achieving dominance. Instead, it was release, it was instinct. Her style of play was the opposite of the dependent inner child.”
Wilkerson felt that Garrison could dominate the sport, and he began to devote more and more time to her. Garrison told the Chicago Tribune that her coach constantly reminded her that she faced a distinct disadvantage when she met opponents who had been nurtured by well-paid, country club professionals. Garrison remembered Wilkerson telling her, “You have to be two and three times better than the others.” She strove to meet his goals, always conscious of her minority status. “We didn’t think of ourselves as being as good as they were,” she said of her white opponents. “And they didn’t think of us as equal to them. Those were the stereotypes. Some still exist.”
Like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe before her, Garrison challenged the stereotypes and put them to rest. In 1981, at the age of seventeen, she won the junior singles titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The following year she turned professional and rose to a highly respectable sixteenth in the rankings. The Women’s International Tennis Association named her “most impressive newcomer” of 1982.
With Wilkerson as her full-time coach, Garrison embarked on the hectic round of tennis tournaments in the United States, Europe, and the Far East. She was rarely able to return to Houston, and she worried about her mother constantly. Her fears were well-founded: Mary Garrison suffered from diabetes and died of the illness in 1983. In retrospect, Zina told Sports Illustrated that she did not allow herself to grieve over her mother’s loss, but rather denied that it had even happened. “I just kept telling myself that my mother wasn’t gone,” she said, “that she was on a long trip somewhere.” Holding her feelings in, she turned to the courts for release, rising in 1985 from ninth in the rankings to fifth.
That year Garrison reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the Australian and U.S. Opens. She earned $274,470 in prize money, a handsome salary for a twenty-one-year-old. Behind her tough exterior, however, she was beginning to dissolve. She went on eating binges, consuming whole boxes of cereal or cartons of ice cream and then forcing herself to throw up. Needless to say, the condition affected her playing ability. “My nails were soft, my skin was bad,” she told Sports Illustrated. “I had no energy at all.” In desperation, she admitted her problem to Wilkerson, who helped her find a therapist who specialized in eating disorders. Through therapy, she finally began to come to terms with her mother’s death. The process was a long one, though, and in the meantime she had to continue to play tennis.
At her third Wimbledon appearance in 1986, Garrison was winning in a third set against Virginia Wade when she suddenly seemed to fall apart. She began to cry during play, and the emotion only compounded her errors. She lost a lead, and then the set and the game. “Psychologists still use that as an example of crumbling under pressure,” Garrison told the Chicago Tribune. Unfortunately, the display did little for Garrison’s reputation. As Moore and Vader noted: “Over the years Garrison has lost so many late-round matches to elite opponents that she has allowed the doubtful and demanding collective mind of tennis to conclude that she is a hopeless choker.”
Frustrated with her level of play, Garrison fired Wilkerson and hired his associate, Willis Thomas, as her coach. She endeavored to be more open to the press and her fans, and she began to hold tennis clinics in the inner cities for minority and disadvantaged youngsters. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, she redeemed herself by earning a bronze medal in singles competition and a gold medal in doubles, with Pam Shriver. In a 1989 match leading to the U.S. Open semifinals, she earned the distinction of being the last woman to beat the legendary Chris Evert.
By late 1989 Garrison had reached fourth ranking internationally and seemed to be at the top of her form. Nevertheless, most of her income derived from her tournament play and from her clinics and personal appearances. She did not have a significant product endorsement—except for Wilson tennis rackets—a situation rare for women tennis stars. Even now her list of product endorsements lags far behind those of Navratilova, Graf, and Gabrielle Sabatini. Los Angeles Daily News correspondent Joe Jares noted that “tennis apparel and equipment manufacturers tend to view black females as just about the smallest segment of their customers or potential customers. And Garrison’s principal appeal is to black females.”
Garrison has responded by introducing tennis to black youngsters, with the goal of more minority involvement in the sport. “Things are changing a little bit in tennis, but not a lot,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “Tennis is still not visible in many homes. If you don’t have cable, you don’t see it much. I really think if the black community took interest, we’d see lots of new talent. I’d love to see someone with Michael Jordan’s moves and Magic Johnson’s hands on the tennis court.”
Garrison had her best year to date in 1990. She won the French Open and advanced to the finals at Wimbledon, only to lose to the determined Navratilova. Still, the near-victory at Wimbledon—the closest Garrison has come to a Grand Slam win—helped her to earn more endorsements, including a substantial one with Reebok foot-wear. Newly married to Houston executive Willard Jackson, Garrison found herself busier than ever, juggling tournaments, endorsements, and personal appearances. She told the Detroit Free Press that she actually welcomes the hectic lifestyle. “I enjoy it,” she said. “I just have to get used to it and I should learn how to say no.”
In 1991, Garrison’s level of play fell somewhat. She advanced to only two finals in sixteen tournaments and was eliminated in the first round five times. Her ranking is plummeting but still lingers above twenty. Part of her problem, she admitted in the San Francisco Examiner, was coaching. She had fired Willis Thomas in favor of a third coach, Sherwood Stewart, but now she has returned to Thomas. Under Stewart, she said, “I had no directions, no clue. I didn’t know how to play tennis anymore.” Garrison is still eyeing a Grand Slam victory—preferably at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. She told the Detroit Free Press that learning to control her speed and pace herself is a high priority. “Some people might think I’ve lost a step since I’m getting older, but I’ve really gotten a little faster,” she said. “I understand the court now. Before, I’d overrun the ball a lot and wear myself out.”
Garrison is very conscious of the fact that she stands as a role model for minority youngsters. Now a multi-millionaire, she still takes time to talk to disadvantaged children whenever possible. “It’s hard for black kids, Mexican kids, white kids to have much self-image when their parents are away on jobs making money,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “I tell them they don’t have to be an athlete to acquire self-image. Be what you are. Writer. Student. Let it happen, and draw off that.” She added: “If I were a kid now, I’d have a model. Why an athlete? Because kids look up to athletes.”
In spite of her disappointing 1991 season, Garrison does not feel that her best days are behind her. She still plans to compete—and win—in major tournaments worldwide. She told the Chicago Tribune that she draws her strength from her years in the tough public parks in Houston. “You have to be meaner … to come from the parks,” she said. “Those ‘scars’ … left me stubborn and tough and determined not to quit. I’m known for that. I never give up.”
Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1989; July 6, 1990.
Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1990.
Los Angeles Daily News, August 11, 1989.
San Francisco Examiner, November 7, 1991.
Sports Illustrated, November 27, 1989.
Washington Post, February 19, 1990; July 7, 1990; July 8, 1990.
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