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Garrison upsets Graf to reach Wimbledon final

Garrison's biggest rally came off the court
By Alex Fineman
Special to

"I do hold things on my shoulder. I'm very emotional. I take things at heart. I remember having a conversation with Arthur Ashe and Arthur said that he could always tell what was going on in my personal life when I played on the court. I could never separate the two which was always a tough thing for me, and that's why I think my career went up and down the way that it did," says Zina Garrison on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Zina Garrison
Zina Garrison upset Monica Seles and Steffi Graf to reach the 1990 Wimbledon finals, becoming the first African-American woman to reach a Grand Slam final since Althea Gibson in 1958.
On the tennis court, Zina Garrison made headlines in 1990 at Wimbledon by becoming the first African-American woman to reach a Grand Slam final since Althea Gibson 32 years earlier. Off the court, she had made news earlier when she announced that she had bulimia.

From her youth, Garrison had little self-esteem. She saw herself as this person with a huge body. When she looked into the mirror, she felt like she saw an elephant. Growing up without a father -- he died when she was five months old -- she was close to her mother Mary, who suffered from acute diabetes for years. When Mary died in 1983, that emotional loss, coupled with Garrison's feeling of worthlessness, drove the 19-year-old to bulimia, an eating order that gives one an illusion of control.

A depressed Garrison learned how to make herself vomit. For several years, she binged and purged almost daily. Once bulimia began to severely affect her body, Garrison sought therapy. She came to realize that it stemmed from suppressed anger and a feeling of loneliness. Eventually, she began to take better care of the athletic body that had taken her career so far.

Despite the illness, Garrison performed capably on the court, playing just below the elite level. She won at least one singles or doubles title each year from 1984 to 1995. In her 15-year professional career, she won 14 singles titles, 20 doubles crowns and $4.6 million in prize money.

She was born on Nov. 16, 1963 in Houston, and by the time she was in school she discovered that she was a talented athlete. At eight, she was playing in a fast-pitch softball league with 14- and 15-year-olds. While growing up, she would routinely win at track meets. The hand-eye coordination and speed that came from those two sports made her a natural for tennis.

Her brother Rodney, one of six older siblings, introduced her to the game when she was 10, and she came under the care of John Wilkerson, a tennis instructor at nearby MacGregor Park.

Wilkerson was a former champion on the mostly black American Tennis Association Tour. A self-taught player, he ran a junior program that included another rising African-American star, Lori McNeil.

Garrison quickly fell in love with tennis. At MacGregor Park, she acquired a feel for the game to go along with her raw ability. Garrison initially played a baseline game, but her volley grew stronger as her career developed. She began to play aggressive at some times and wait at the baseline at others.

When Garrison first played tennis tournaments at 12, she was much bigger than many of her opponents. She began to fret about her appearance and about the effect her weight might have on her game. But her play continued to improve and at 14, she won the National Girls 18s title.

In 1980, Garrison got her first taste of what life as a professional would be like. Gibson, the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title, invited Garrison to her camp in Boston. Several black pros were there, and Garrison received the opportunity to practice with Leslie Allen and Kim Sands, among others. The 10-day session hammered home one major point to Garrison -- tennis at the pro level is a good deal mental.

The next year, Garrison won both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open junior titles. Tracy Austin, the U.S. Open champ that summer, invited Garrison to practice with her. The exposure at the pro level combined with her No. 1 world junior ranking led the 18-year-old Garrison to the next step in her career. In 1982, backed by Wilkerson, she turned pro.

Skipping her graduation from Ross Sterling High School, she competed in her first tournament as a pro -- the French Open. Garrison performed admirably, reaching the quarterfinals before losing to Martina Navratilova.

Mary Garrison's health worsened soon after her daughter joined the WTA tour.
Zina Garrison
Zina Garrison finished each year from 1983 to 1990 ranked in the Top 10 except 1986, when she slipped to No. 11.
During one tournament, Mary suffered a heart attack, and later, underwent triple-bypass surgery. In September 1983, while Garrison was competing at the U.S. Open, her mother fell into a coma. A day after Zina returned from a fourth-round exit in the tournament, her mother passed away at the age of 61.

While Garrison turned to bulimia off the court, it didn't seem to affect her play. She closed out the year by reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open and being ranked 10th in the world.

In 1984, she won her first WTA tour title, at the European Indoor championship in Zurich, Switzerland. A year later, she successfully defended her crown, as well as winning the Sunkist/WTA Championships at Amelia Island, Fla., by beating Chris Evert in the final. She also was a Wimbledon semifinalist, and reached the quarterfinals at the Australian and U.S. Opens.

Her first doubles title came in 1986, when she won the Canadian Open with Gabriela Sabatini. Garrison also won doubles at Indianapolis alongside McNeil.

In 1987, Garrison and McNeil reached the Australian Open final, Garrison's best women's doubles finish at a Grand Slam event.

Playing with Sherwood Stewart, she won her first Grand Slam championship in 1988, mixed doubles at Wimbledon. She also reached the semifinals in the U.S. Open by defeating Navratilova -- the only time Garrison ever beat Navratilova in 34 matches.

Then, as a member of the U.S. Olympic team, Garrison defeated Pam Shriver in the quarterfinals to gain a bronze medal. In doubles, she teamed with Shriver to win the gold, defeating Czechoslovakians Jana Novotna and Helena Sukova in the final, 4-6, 6-2, 10-8.

Garrison reached the 1989 U.S. Open semifinals by defeating Evert in the quarterfinals. The match was the last of Evert's career, while Garrison was at the zenith of her career. Her world singles ranking reached No. 4 in 1989, with only Graf, Navratilova and Sabatini ahead of her. That year, Garrison and Stewart won another Grand Slam event -- the Australian Open.

The highlight of her career came in 1990 at Wimbledon, where she reached the singles final. She also won another Wimbledon mixed doubles championship, this time with Ricky Leach.

In 1992, Garrison gained the Australian Open doubles final again, this time with Mary Joe Fernandez, before losing. Garrison and Fernandez had already won two other doubles titles in 1990 and 1991.

After postponing a planned retirement in 1995 -- her husband, Willard Jackson, wanted her to play another year for financial reasons -- Garrison left the WTA tour for good in November 1996 after struggling with physical and emotional problems both on and off the court. She finished with an all-time record of 587-271.

During 1997, Garrison went through a divorce from Jackson, her husband of eight years who had cheated on her. Soon, she relapsed into bulimia. That spiraled her into a deep depression, and she hit bottom in February 1999 when she attempted suicide by taking an overdose mixture of Sudafed and Tylenol. "It was the mixture that was dangerous," Garrison said.

She was in the hospital for three days and a treatment center for a week and a half. She believes she emerged confident and healthy.

Garrison still considers herself bulimic, although she controls the illness by maintaining a strict eating routine. She keeps her food meticulously organized in her refrigerator.

Today, she works as a television commentator as well as maintaining active roles in the community and in tennis. She founded the Zina Garrison Foundation for the Homeless in 1988, and the Zina Garrison All-Court Tennis Program, which supports inner-city tennis in Houston, in 1992. She is also a member of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

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