Trailblazers: A History of Grit and Perseverance
In 1990, Zina Garrison became the first black woman since Gibson to reach a Grand Slam final.
Once upon a time, tennis was a sport almost exclusively for the privileged. Even in the 1970s, it was unusual for people of color to crash through the many barriers the elite game presented.
Zina Garrison grew up in Houston and discovered tennis at the age of 10 at MacGregor Park in the city’s Third Ward and Sunnyside communities. She and other African Americans -- Basketball Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, singer/actress Yolanda Adams and Lori McNeil, another future tennis star also in the junior program -- found their future at MacGregor.
“I liked the challenge of trying to do something that everyone else in my neighborhood was not doing,” Garrison said.
At a junior tournament staged in Texas, Garrison heard an official say, “Throw the n------s in the same bracket.”
She was undeterred.
“I never allowed the fact that I was short, pigeon-toed and black stop me from doing anything,” she said.
Garrison won the American Tennis Association’s national title at the age of 14. In 1981, a year before she graduated from high school, she was the world’s No.1-ranked junior, winning at Wimbledon and the US Open. She skipped the graduation ceremony at Ross Sterling High School in lieu of the French Open and made it all the way to the quarterfinals, where she lost to eventual champion Martina Navratilova and was later named the 1982 WTA Newcomer of the Year.
She was often compared to Althea Gibson, who in winning Wimbledon in 1957 was the first African American woman to collect a Grand Slam singles title. Garrison nearly became the second in 1990, losing to Navratilova in the final.
For three years in the mid-1980s she had a $125,000 annual contract with Pony. But it wasn’t until the day after she defeated Steffi Graf in the semifinals and the night before that final, that Garrison signed her second major endorsement deal with Reebok.
“For five years, even when I made it to the Top 4 in the world, I still had no deal,” she said in a 2020 interview with The Guardian. “I was very aware of what was going on and I was always told: ‘If you make it to this ranking, you’ll get a deal. If you make it to this [round],’ you know? You had white girls behind me, they’re making way more money and their ranking or consistency wasn’t even there.”
But, she concluded, “We can’t focus on what someone’s going to give us or not give us. All we can do is be there for [so long] that you can’t deny it.”
Garrison won 14 tournaments during her WTA career, three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles as well as gold and bronze medals at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In 2009, she sued the USTA for racial discrimination, saying that as the Fed Cup captain she was paid less than her white male counterpart and not offered a multi-year contract. The case was settled out of federal court later that year.
She founded the Zina Garrison Foundation for the Homeless in 1988 and the Zina Garrison All-Court Tennis Program in 1992. She also served as a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport. Very quietly, Garrison paid her hard-fought lessons forward, advising Richard Williams when his daughters Venus and Serena were learning the game on public courts in California.
Nearly a half-century after her first hit at MacGregor Park, Garrison is back in Houston, giving back to the city that nurtured her. Earlier this year, she became the tennis director for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.
“I feel like Zina knew where she came from in developing her own game,” said Pam Shriver, a former doubles partner. “She knew it was important for a younger generation of Houston youth to have similar opportunities. Her foundation and her academy have done a lot of good work for many, many years.”