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Garrison, Zina (1963—)

Garrison, Zina (1963—)

American tennis player who was the first African-American woman to reach the Wimbledon finals since Althea Gibson. Name variations: Zina Garrison-Jackson. Born in Houston, Texas, in 1963; the youngest of the seven children of Ulysses and Mary Garrison; graduated from Ross S. Sterling High School; married Willard Jackson.

The first African-American woman to reach the Wimbledon finals since Althea Gibson in the 1950s, Zina Garrison is one of the few black women to have enjoyed a successful career in a game dominated by whites. When she retired from tennis in 1995, she was praised not only as a trailblazer and a role-model, but as a social-minded philanthropist who has given her time and money to improve life for the homeless and inner-city youth of Houston, Texas, where she was born and raised.

Garrison was the last of seven children. To prove it, her mother, who was 42 when Zina was born, saw to it that her name began with a "Z." When she was still a baby, tragedy struck the family. First, her father suffered an unexpected stroke and died; then her brother Willie developed a fatal brain tumor after being hit in the eye with a baseball. Garrison's mother cushioned the blows for Zina, as did her older brother Rodney, who let her tag along with him to MacGregor Park, a municipal playground in the neighborhood with tennis courts.

While Rodney went his way, Garrison hung around the courts, a persistent presence, watching local coach John Wilkerson give tennis lessons. He finally gave her a wooden racket and showed her how to play. Garrison had a natural talent for the game and before long Wilkerson was coaching her for major national tournaments. He also prepared her for the difficult road ahead, telling her that she would be up against better-trained players and that she would have to be two or three times better than her opponents.

Garrison was not daunted. In 1981, at 17, she won the junior titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The following year, after graduating from high school, she turned pro, and by 1982, she was 16th in world tennis rankings. Employing Wilkerson as her full-time coach, she played tournaments in the United States, Europe, and the Far East, a hectic schedule that kept her away from her family in Houston. When her mother suffered complications from diabetes and died in 1983, Garrison was emotionally devastated and used tennis as an outlet for her grief. By 1985, she had risen to fifth in the rankings. That same year, she reached the semifinals at Wimbledon and the quarter-finals at the Australian and U.S. opens.

By 1986, however, Garrison's unresolved grief had erupted into a full-blown eating disorder that threatened her career, and she finally sought help. By the time of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, she was back in top form. She won a gold medal in doubles with Pam Shriver , and a bronze in the singles competition. In 1989, she was ranked fourth in the world and that year became the last person to beat Chris Evert in a tournament. She hit her zenith in 1990, advancing to the finals at Wimbledon (where she lost to Martina Navratilova ), and winning, by way of some lucrative endorsements deals, the recognition that had long been denied her as a black woman.

As she came into her own, Garrison used her celebrity and her money to help her hometown of Houston. Through the Zina Garrison Foundation, founded in 1988, she has supported various projects, including youth organizations and antidrug programs, to help the homeless. In 1992, using a $20,000 award from Family Circle Magazine's "Player Who Makes a Difference," she established the Zina Garrison All-Court Tennis Academy, which provides tennis lessons for the economically disadvantaged children of the inner city. "The organizations were started because I noticed in Texas no one else was doing them," she said. "Tennis gave me the opportunity to learn more about myself and taught me I was capable of doing anything that I wanted to do. I want others to feel that way also."

Garrison, who is married to Houston executive Willard Jackson, retired from tennis in 1995 to start a family. As her career came to an end, there was talk of her sense of fair play and her grace under pressure. John Feinstein, in Tennis magazine, likened her to the great Arthur Ashe. "Like Ashe, Garrison-Jackson always has carried herself with a quiet dignity," he wrote, "even while suffering indignities that had nothing to do with who or what she was and everything to do with what color she is." Garrison credits the lessons back in MacGregor Park with giving her the strength to be successful. "You have to be meaner… to come from the parks," she told the Chicago Tribune. "Those scars… left me stubborn and tough and determined not to quit. I'm known for that. I never give up."

sources:

Feinstein, John. "A Curtain Call for a Class Act," in Tennis. Vol. 31, no. 3. July 1995, pp. 24–26.

Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1998.

"Star Profile: Zina Garrison-Jackson," in Black Enterprise. Vol. 26, no. 2. September 1995, p. 134.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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