Two Houstonians serve up history

June 28, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England -- History happened on the grass at Wimbledon yesterday, but it took a long time.

It started in a public parks program in Houston in the mid-1970s. It started to produce results in 1990, when Zina Garrison became the first black woman to make the Wimbledon finals since Althea Gibson won Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958.

Yesterday morning, Lori McNeil rallied for a 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-4) victory over Florencia Labat. By itself, it would have been a nice story.

But then, late in the afternoon, Zina Garrison-Jackson upset No. 2 seed Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, to create a women's quarterfinal never before seen here:

* For the first time in the open era at Wimbledon, neither the No. 1 nor the No. 2 seed in the women's draw has made it out of the fourth round.

* And for the first time, two African-American women have made the quarterfinals.

On top of that, it is the first time since 1980 that a No. 1 or No. 2 women's seed has not made the Wimbledon final.

"If Lori and Zina both make the finals, I think I'm going home," said John Wilkerson, who coached both of them at MacGregor Park in Houston and is now coaching Garrison-Jackson.

Neither McNeil nor Garrison-Jackson, two of five American women in the quarterfinals, would mind seeing Wilkerson leave.

"John used to talk about the two of us making the Wimbledon finals a lot when we were kids," said Garrison-Jackson. "It's really weird, because I can remember actually the first time we came over here, and John used to say to us, like, you know, his dream was for Lori and I to be in the finals and then for him to just sit back and relax for the first time in his life and not worry about who wins.

"I think both Lori and I have thought a lot about that through the years. So now we both have to take it one match at a time."

Tomorrow, McNeil, who upset No. 1 seed Steffi Graf in the first round here, will play Larisa Neiland on Court One, followed by Garrison-Jackson against Gigi Fernandez.

On Centre Court, Martina Navratilova will face last year's women's finalist, Jana Novotna, followed by 18-year-old Lindsay Davenport against Conchita Martinez, the third-ranked woman in the world.

An issue that has surfaced here is the inspiration that the performances by McNeil and Garrison-Jackson will have on other minorities who play tennis.

WTA-Tour Players Association president Pam Shriver could barely retain her enthusiasm yesterday.

"Two African-Americans in the quarters, neither Steffi nor Sanchez making it," she said. "I can't even remember when either one or the other top seeds didn't make it through and I'm pleased for both Zina and Lori. I really do think it is both inspiring and a sign of very good competition."

But it might also be viewed as disappointing. McNeil, who made the quarterfinals here in 1986, but has not made it that far in a Grand Slam event anywhere since making the quarters at the Australian and semifinals at the U.S. Open in 1987, and Garrison-Jackson, whose last quarterfinal appearance here was 1991, are both 30.

While McNeil is not yet talking about retiring, Garrison-Jackson has made it known that she will quit the tour at the end of the 1995 season.

And while they have been playing and succeeding on the professional tennis circuit, there had been few, if any, other African-American women following their footsteps until this year, when 18-year-old Chanda Rubin broke through to earn a world ranking of No. 32.

Still in the offing are California natives Venus and Serena Williams, two more public parks graduates who are expected to do great things, but who have yet to play on the junior circuit, never mind the pro tour.

"Maybe with us succeeding here and getting more attention in the States, it will help to get more interest going," McNeil said.

Garrison-Jackson has been trying to help the development of minority players through the Zina Garrison All-Court Tennis Academy Inner City Junior Program, which is open to any youngster in Houston.

It opened last November, and 484 children are enrolled and play at MacGregor and Memorial parks. It is funded through private donations, and Garrison-Jackson said she did not even think about asking the United States Tennis Association, "because I wanted to be sure I got what I wanted."

The USTA has been criticized by national publications for having allocated $4 million a year to a player development program, while, at the same time, allegedly being inattentive to minority prospects.

Page Crosland, director of communications for the USTA, points out that six years ago Arthur Ashe started the junior development program in Key Biscayne, Fla.

"But it wasn't set up for just black players," she said. "He saw a need to attract all minorities. I'm not saying we're not going after blacks, but we're interested in all urban youngsters, and we are keen on making the USTA more inclusive.

"Arthur Ashe was a wonderful role model, but one is not enough. We need the Zinas, MaliVais [Washington] and Loris."

Ron Woods, director of the junior program, said the organization is "making a modestly aggressive effort" to make sure minorities have a chance to play tennis.

McNeil and Garrison-Jackson tried to be diplomatic yesterday, but it was hard.

"I don't want to bash the USTA or any other national organizations," said Garrison-Jackson. "I think they have some programs. But I think the main thing is to look at the actual reason why you have them, not just to have them to say you have them, but to actually try to do something about them."

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