Wisdom Watch: Tennis Star Zina Garrison

As the Australian Open gets underway today, host Michel Martin profiles the career of one tennis great from decades past —Zina Garrison. Garrison was ranked number four in the world in 1990, the year she won French Open. She was the first black first black woman to reach the Wimbledon finals since Althea Gibson, in the 1950's. Garrison talks with Martin about her beginnings in tennis, what kept her going on and off the court and about her efforts to help young players.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, to a Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk to those who've made a difference through their work. And today, with the Australian Open in full swing, we decided to talk to a trailblazer in tennis. Before there was Serena, before there was Venus, there was Zina Garrison. She ranked number four in the world back in 1990. She was the first black woman to reach the Wimbledon finals since Althea Gibson did so in the 1950s. And Zina Garrison went on to become the first black captain of the U.S. Fed Cup team.

Now she's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. She stopped by to support one of the area's afterschool programs for youth, especially those who might otherwise not have the opportunity to play tennis. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ZINA GARRISON (Pro Tennis Player): Thanks for having me here today.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people might not remember what it was like to play tennis before - to be a player in tennis before there was a Venus or Serena, somebody who's so visible on the scene. So I'd like to ask how you got involved with the sport.

Ms. GARRISON: Yeah, I actually have a very interesting story because my brother had a girlfriend that played tennis in high school and was actually playing baseball in the field behind the tennis courts. And I went out with him one day and was sitting down, didn't really want to be at the baseball field and was sitting down at the tennis and saw these guys playing. One of the guys came over, who became my coach, John Wilkerson, in Houston, Texas, and asked me what was I doing, just using up God's air? And I said, yeah, that's what I'm doing, you know. I was kind of a cocky teenager - I mean, a cocky young girl.

And he asked me if I wanted to try this sport. So, I went out and I hit the first ball over the fence and I was, like, yes. I did it. And was, like, no, you see the little white lines, you need to keep the balls in the white lines. So I did. And I played for about three months and then I got a brand new bike. So I started hanging out with my friends.

And Bill Cosby, actually, the JELL-O pudding guy, actually came out and was giving a tennis clinic. And out of a hundred kids he picked me to hit with. And been playing ever since.

MARTIN: That's amazing. I wasn't sure if that was true. I had heard that story, but I didn't believe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GARRISON: No, it's very true. It's very true.

MARTIN: So, Bill Cosby. Well, you won 14 singles championships, 21 doubles championships, three Grand Slam titles, a gold and a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, South Korea, as well as, of course, endorsements. I would like to ask how you faired all those years when you were the only one. You were the only African American player out on the scene.

Of course, Arthur Ashe was playing before you, but he was a man. But some people have started talking about some of the stuff that they've put up with over the years that has not gotten a lot of attention - racial slurs and all kinds of stuff that isn't so attractive.

Ms. GARRISON: Yeah. I think...

MARTIN: I'd like to ask what it was like for you.

Ms. GARRISON: Believe it or not, when I was playing, there was actually more African Americans on the pro tour than there is now. I grew up, I think it was probably, like, six, seven, maybe even eight women players that were playing on the pro circuit. They were lowerly(ph) ranked. But overall, in retrospect it was very lonely and there was some very difficult things that I went through.

But I actually had a great group of people around me at all times that pretty much sheltered me from a lot of things. There were definitely some rough times in my career. And every time I went on that court, I was not just battling for myself, I was battling for my race as well and I understood that, 'cause I had a lot of role models ahead of me that made it very clear that I was a pioneer and that I was supposed to, you know, act as one.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Zina Garrison. She was the first black woman to reach the Wimbledon final since Althea Gibson did so in the 1950s. She's a trailblazer, of course, in tennis. She won 14 singles championships, 21 doubles championships, among other accomplishments.

One of the things that I noticed about you, is that you've been involved in community things for years and I was wondering why that was. I mean there's that famous Charles Barkley quote which has been oft-repeated, which is, I'm not a role model, you know. Your parents are role models. But you are very consistent and have been since your playing days. I'm wondering where that comes from and why that matters so much to you.

Ms. GARRISON: For me it's a two-part. My family is pretty much like that. And a quick little story. I remember my mom throwing one of my good coats outside because somebody needed a coat to wear and showed up at our door and I remember saying to my mother, like, well, what about me? She's, like, we can get another one, you know. The person's cold, needs another coat.

And the other part of it is my coach, John Wilkerson, in order for us to have free tennis lessons, we had to teach others how to play in the summer. He had always instilled in me to give back and I was one of the first persons on the tour to start any city I went to, I did the tennis clinic because I understood how important it was. I am who I am and so giving back has always been a part of me.

MARTIN: The money has increased in tennis, though, tremendously.

Ms. GARRISON: Oh, I wish I would've came now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I was going to ask you, do you look at that and you think, whoa? Now, I mean, you didn't do badly. I mean, earned a couple million dollars in earnings, but, in fact, now for women...

Ms. GARRISON: They'd make that in four months.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, first of all, the earnings for woman were not as large when you were playing, and the endorsements were not as lucrative as they are now. And I wonder if you ever think, darn it.

Ms. GARRISON: Well, definitely from the endorsement.

MARTIN: I can buy a Bentley.

Ms. GARRISON: Maybe a bunch of purses, which is my...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Handbags. That's your thing.

Ms. GARRISON: Yeah. But it's just really overall just the money that's in the sports. And, you know, I went five years being in the top five in the world and not having any endorsements. I mean, so just that alone, I sometimes think about.

MARTIN: Do you think that's because of your race?

Ms. GARRISON: It definitely back then was for sure. I mean, I have footage. I've seen written things where I can't sell to, quote, unquote, Wall Street or the market or whatever. And but things have changed. And so overall I was just very blessed to be in a sport that has just transcend women in general.

MARTIN: It wasn't all peaches and cream. In fact, one of the things that I've appreciated about you is that you've talked about eating disorders at a time when very few people, very few people - public figures were talking about it. Certainly very few African Americans were talking about it. If you don't mind my asking, how are you doing now? You look great.

Ms. GARRISON: I am actually doing very well. I, in fact...

MARTIN: How did you realize you had a problem?

Ms. GARRISON: Well, first and foremost it was very prominent on the women's tour. But it's funny and not, I actually picked up from a cousin, who was a model in California, she's the one that kind of got me into the whole thing. And I don't really like to go into it.

MARTIN: Yeah. So, why did you do that? Why? Was it because you felt you didn't like how you looked or what do you think that was about?

Ms. GARRISON: It really wasn't a thin thing, it was more feeling like that was the one thing that I control. You know, my mom died at 19, when I was 19. And for me, agents and all of this and everybody coming - it was the one thing that I could control. You know, I did a lot of therapy and what people don't realize is that I had probably a five, six-year period in there when I was actually doing okay. That I had a serious inner turmoil with bulimia at that time.

And I remember beating Chris Evert, the guy on NBC, I just won the Clay Court tournament down in Amelia Island, Florida. And the guy said, oh, you know, your skin looks so lit up. He said something, like, I had blotches and basically it was from the whole bulimia thing. And I was, like, oh yeah, it's a skin something - I came up - but before I went out, I know I ate some broccoli and I got rid of it before I went on the court.

So I just had an interesting life. And I've always been really real with myself and wanted to tell others because there are people that are going through something. And, you know, if I can help one other person, then I feel very blessed in being able to do that.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming. You were very generous with your time. We always like to ask, you have any wisdom to share?

Ms. GARRISON: I think the biggest wisdom that I have to share right now is to stay faithful to yourself, stay faithful to your family and your friends and your blessings will come.

MARTIN: Zina Garrison is an international tennis champion, founder of the Zina Garrison Allcourt Tennis Academy. She was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. GARRISON: Oh, thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.