Editor’s note: With the WTA Finals heading to Fort Worth this year, we take a look back at the career of one of the most successful WTA players to hail from the state of Texas, Zina Garrison.
Zina Garrison, the last of seven children, came along a decade after the sixth. Growing up in Houston in the 1970s, she said, was sometimes a lonely experience.
After she turned 10, Garrison found a family in MacGregor Park, the cultural core of the city’s Third Ward and Sunnyside communities. Basketball Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, singer/actress Yolanda Adams and Lori McNeil, another future tennis star also in the junior program, were fixtures at MacGregor.
“I was always very competitive within myself,” Garrison said recently from Houston. “I liked the challenge of trying to do something that everyone else in my neighborhood was not doing. And I liked the fact that you could play singles, but also that you could play doubles.”
Garrison is part of the rich history of women’s tennis in Texas. This is where the Hologic WTA Tour has its roots in the Virginia Slims circuit, where Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. And next week in Fort Worth, the best and the brightest players of 2022 in singles and doubles will compete in the WTA Finals in Fort Worth.
When she started out, Garrison didn’t know that players kept score; she thought you just hit the ball until you got tired. John Wilkerson, the director of that junior program, taught her not only tennis, but life lessons as well.
“My dad died when I was one,” Garrison said. “So John was a father figure for me. We had 28 kids who came out and played every day. Lori and I were some of the younger ones at that time. It was a really cool environment to be around other Black kids that were playing a game that a lot of people didn’t know or understand at that time from our neighborhoods.”
Nearly a half-century later, Garrison is back in Houston, paying it forward, giving back to the city that nurtured her and taught her life skills, on and off the court. Earlier this year, she became the tennis director for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. It’s taken some getting used to.
“I’m learning a whole new life,” she said, laughing. “I have a desk and a lot of e-mails … it’s been interesting.”
By the age of 14, she was ready to test herself at the nationals in Birmingham, Alabama. When she came up against Andrea Jaeger, Wilkerson told her she was planning soon to turn pro -- at the age of 14.
“Like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson?” she asked Wilkerson. “I think I lost the match I think like 5 and 4. But I was like, 'If she can do it, I can do it, too.’”
Oh, yes she could.
Garrison would go on to win 587 singles matches, 14 titles and collect more than $4 million in prize money in a career that ran from 1982-96. Her highest ranking was No.4 in 1989, the same year she defeated Chris Evert in the quarterfinals of the US Open, the last tournament of Evert’s career. She was a finalist at Wimbledon in 1990 and also won three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles as well as two Fed Cup team championships. And then there was a memorable run at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
“We somehow figured out how to win doubles, which was amazing because the Czech team was tough,” said Pam Shriver, who was Garrison’s partner and roommate. “It was over Jana Novotna and Helena Sukova in the third [4-6, 6-2, 10-8]. And then Zina beat me in the quarterfinals in singles and won the bronze medal.
“Zina and I were pretty close in juniors and we were always pretty good friends. We called ourselves the Seoul Sisters. Even though she didn’t have the size [Garrison stood 5-foot-5], she really knew how to put pressure on the opponent. Her footspeed -- I feel like in our generation, there was nobody quicker. I mean, Steffi Graf was really speedy, but … when Zina’s full game was on, plus her footwork -- oh, my gosh.”
Ask Garrison what she’s proudest of and she’ll mention those Olympic medals and the Wimbledon finals. But then she says, “I had a really amazing career, and had an opportunity to meet a lot of amazing people -- presidents, kings, queens -- a little girl growing up in MacGregor Park. I think about it now that I’m older.
“I mean, I’ve really had an amazing life.”
Back in 1992, well before she retired, Garrison approached Wilkerson and said she wanted to give something back to the next generation of kids in Houston. His program had faded a bit, and he suggested she start a foundation and re-inventing the program at MacGregor. They called it the All-Court Tennis Academy because Wilkerson believed kids should learn how to play on all the surfaces tennis offered.
Garrison had always been quick to volunteer for clinics as a professional, and she had learned to teach at a young age -- that was how she paid for her own lessons by teaching the younger kids in the summer. That program eventually became the Zina Garrison Academy, which over the years offered all kinds of on- and off-the-court training to hundreds of Houston kids.
A few weeks ago, Garrison and more than 30 other MacGregor Park regulars traveled to Austin to visit with Wilkerson and celebrate his achievement.
Her work in the community deserves accolades as well.
“I feel like she knew from where she came from in developing her own game,” Shriver said. “She knew it was important for a younger generation of Houston youth to have similar opportunities. Her foundation, her academy have done a lot of good work for many, many years.”