It’s a story Zina Garrison always enjoys telling: She was 10 years old, sitting on a bench in MacGregor Park near the University of Houston idly watching a couple of guys play tennis, when a man named John Wilkerson walked up to her and asked what she was doing—just using God’s air? “I was a pretty cocky kid,” she tells us, hanging out at the West Alabama Ice House on a beautiful afternoon. “And I was like, Yeah?” She makes the same skeptical face she gave Wilkerson that day more than four decades ago, then laughs.
But when Wilkerson asked her to play, Garrison walked right up to the court. Picking up a racquet for the first time, she hit the ball over the fence. “I had played softball before,” she says, “and I was like, Yay! And he was like, No, you’ve got to keep it in the white lines.” So that’s what she did, and after they’d hit for a while, Wilkerson invited her to come back and play again. Thus began a tennis career that would see Garrison, with Wilkerson as her coach, become the number one junior player in the world before graduating from Sterling High School in 1982 and, seven years later, the number four player worldwide, even reaching the 1990 Wimbledon singles final against Martina Navratilova. The bored little girl had grown up to become an international star.
But a prominent tennis career is just one of the ways Garrison would make her mark. From her years as a pro to the present day, she’s always found a way to help others, even when she herself was facing personal troubles. It’s something, she says, that her mom instilled in her. “My mom had seven kids,” Garrison says. “We had a corner house in Sunnyside Gardens, and you know, it was always the house that if you need something to eat, if you need some clothes, stop by and knock on the door.”
Garrison has been a strong mentor for other players, including, for many years, Serena Williams. “I always tell her she’s mentoring me now, she’s broken so many barriers,” Garrison says, “but I’ve known her since she was like seven or eight years old.” (Of Williams’s loss at the US Open this year, on the cusp of a historic Grand Slam, Garrison says, “Yeah, that was a little disappointing but very exciting. Being first and foremost a tennis player, just any time you can see a possibility of history being made, that’s always exciting … I can’t even imagine how much pressure she’s under.”)
Sharing her personal struggles turned out to be another way to give back. When Garrison was 19, her mom died, and she began to suffer from depression and bulimia. Eventually she got treatment, and in ’92 she opened up about it in a big way. “I came out that I was bulimic in Sports Illustrated,” she says, “and back then no other African-American athlete had ever touched on or talked about it or anything.” The letters she received from fans who said she’d saved their lives inspired Garrison to continue to raise awareness. “If I have people that are around that need to hear my story,” she says, “I’m willing to tell it.”
That same year, Garrison retired from tennis and, with Wilkerson, founded the Zina Garrison Tennis Academy, with the goal of providing the same opportunities to Houston’s young people that her coach had given her. To date the academy has served more than 22,000 children, and in 2016—after years of fundraising—it will be getting new digs on the University of Houston campus, sharing a space with the school’s women’s tennis team. In conjunction with UH, the academy will take what’s called a “blended learning” approach, combining music, art and athletics to help kids improve their cognitive abilities—a perfect fit with tennis, which requires problem solving, reasoning skills and foresight.
While Garrison has remained heavily involved in the academy since its inception, until this past summer her home base was Maryland. Now living full-time back home in Houston, she has been taken by the city’s remarkable diversity. In fact, a recent scene at her academy stopped her in her tracks.
“I actually took a picture,” says Garrison. “I noticed all different races, all different economic backgrounds, all that, and everybody’s just getting together, and kids are just having fun, and the parents are sitting down talking. That’s the way I feel America should be.”