By age 17, she had already taken the tennis world by storm. Finally, a potentially dominant African American player-in-the-making in a sport desperately in need of some color. Her peers–and her critics-marveled at her game, her athleticism, not to mention her No. 1 ranking at the junior level. She was the reigning champion in the Junior U.S. Open and Junior Wimbledon. While most girls her age were more concerned about what to wear to high school graduation, Zina Garrison was thinking about leaving the ceremony early to catch a flight to France to play in the French Open, her first pro tournament. Houston’s biggest secret was now the talk of the town. “There was confusion everywhere,” says Garrison of her formative years. “It was both good and bad. Good because of the immediate recognition and the money, and bad because of the tremendous pressures that accompany that success.”
On the business side, Garrison had secured a three-year contract with apparel and shoe line manufacturer Pony. Budget Rent-A-Car, Carnation and Wilson Racquet rounded out Team Garrison’s stable of financial backers. In her sport, where there are no teammates to pick up the slack when you’re having a bad day, financial support is as important as a top 10 ranking. By her 18th birthday, Garrison would enter the computer ranking at an amazing No. 29. Two weeks later, she would climb to 18th in the world. A month later, she had claimed a spot in the top 10.
Things were as good as they could get–at least, until that five-year stretch where it seemed corporate America forgot who Zina Garrison was. “I went five years after that without having a clothing contract,” Garrison recalls. “And for a tennis player, that’s especially tough. All the money I made on the court was what I had to use to survive. There was basically no money outside of my earnings. There was no bonus. It was tough, especially knowing that players ranked lower than you were doing a lot better financially.”
Unlike in professional basketball and football, where African Americans participate in larger numbers–80% and 67% respectively–blacks in golf and tennis have been forced to fight their own corporate battles. However, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort by corporate America to snub blacks in golf and tennis Tiger Woods and Venus Williams are a testament to that. But for every Tiger and Venus–players who are a sure bet to do well–there are countless individual anecdotes of other players who have a difficult time getting–and staying–on the circuit. And financial difficulty is the main culprit.
“I’ve watched Venus and [sister] Serena and they’re making the money they deserve to make,” says Garrison, now 35. “There’s no doubt I helped open some doors for them but the way I see things, I think naturally blacks develop a following among a lot of different types of races because of the fact that you’re different,” says Garrison, who tearfully retired last year after 15 years as one of the best