Achieving a difference Retirement: Zina Garrison, who will play here in the Legends Tour, is helping minorities become more involved in the game.

May 12, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The woman sitting across the table amiably chatting about tennis, the Williams sisters and the future of the game is Zina Garrison, but she has only a vague resemblance to the Zina Garrison who retired from professional tennis last year.

This woman looks different. She is glamorous and slim. Her hair is styled. Her eyes sparkle. Her smile is free and easy.

"A lot of people say I look different," said Garrison, laughing. "It's lack of stress."

She sounds different, too.

In 1990, as Garrison waited to step onto the green grass of Centre Court for the Wimbledon final, she said she hoped her achievement -- being the first African-American woman to reach a Grand Slam final since Althea Gibson in 1958 -- would inspire a generation of minority players.

Now, as she waits to play in the Virginia Slims Legends tournament here May 20 and 21, she says that she isn't surprised it hasn't happened.

"I didn't win," she said. "I needed to win it. Tiger Woods winning the Masters shows that. Minorities all over America are playing golf. America is about winning, no matter what we do. Tiger winning the Masters, it gave every minority player who picks up a golf club the feeling that they can win the greatest golf tournament in the world."

But she still says that making that 1990 final mattered. She sees it as a steppingstone. Maybe there aren't dozens of minority players pounding on the doors to play pro tennis, but the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, are there, and Garrison said their path has been made easier by players such as herself and Lori McNeil, just as the trail was paved for them by Gibson and Leslie Allen.

Garrison, who at 34 is retired from the pro tour, said the perception of women in sports has changed. Women, she said, are now taken more seriously, they're used in marketing, sponsors put more money into women's sports. People, she said, now see women's sports as viable. And, thanks to accomplishments like hers and McNeil's, playing has been made easier for players like Venus and Serena Williams.

"I went five years without a promotional contract until I made the Wimbledon finals," Garrison said. "When Venus and Serena came along, the doors were open. When I played, when I was on the court, I believed I could get to a Grand Slam final. Now, they believe they can win it. And, in fact, I believe they have a very good chance of winning a Grand Slam final this summer. The question for them is: How many?"

Even before Garrison made it to the Wimbledon final, where she lost to Martina Navratilova -- who also will be appearing here on the Legends tour -- she was working to help minorities become involved in tennis.

In her hometown of Houston, she heads the Zina Garrison Foundation, which provides funds and support for the homeless, youth organizations, anti-drug groups and other charitable organizations. And in 1992, she founded the Zina Garrison All-Court Tennis program, which provides minority children the opportunity to build self-esteem through tennis.

"It's just really interesting to see little kids hit a ball over the net," she said. "They're happy. And my goal now is to widen the opportunity for a better citizenry. I was so into what I was doing, and I was hoping there would be more minorities coming along after me after Wimbledon. Now, if it happens, if another minority can win a Grand Slam title -- whether they're African-American or whatever -- I'll be thrilled.

"It's been 41 years since Althea won a title. It's been too long."

Fact box

What: Virginia Slims Legends Tour

Where: Baltimore Arena

When: May 20-21, 7 p.m.

Tickets: 410-296-2929

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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