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Tennis Star Zina Garrison: More Than Just Tennis!

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Jun-Jul 1990: Zina Garrison of the USA prepares to serve during the Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon in London. Mandatory Credit: Bob Martin/Allsport

By Tj Baker

If you haven’t already, please do read the “Life Of King Henry The Fifth” in Act 1, Scene 2, the French Dauphin taunts Henry for his youth by sending a gift of tennis balls.  Yes, the game of Tennis goes back that far.  Continuing, King Henry is no stranger on the tennis court and the gift of tennis balls is an insult to King Henry that he goes on to brag how he will beat them on their own tennis turf in France.  Playing tennis goes on beyond winning just a match in King Henry’s mind; it is a pre-testimony an internal power struggle of seizing France!

Here is what King Henry had to say about an up-coming possible tennis match, “We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us; His present and your pains we thank you for: when we have march’d our rackets to these balls, we will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.  Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler that all the courts of France will be disturb’d with chances. And we understand him well, how he comes o’er us with our wilder days, not measuring what use we made of them. We never valued this poor seat of England; and therefore, living hence, did give our self to barbarous license; as ’tis ever common that men are merriest when they are from home. But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state, be like a king and show my sail of greatness.” 

And speaking of the sail of greatness about playing tennis, that’s what this particular interview is all about… The Great Zina Garrison! Phenomenally she is teaching more than just tennis at her Zina Garrison Tennis Academy from participants that come from all over the world, and all over the USA’s soil.

The weather was just beautiful on that day; it wasn’t too hot or humid, I couldn’t ask for better weather; upon sitting outside interviewing Zina as we watch four little black girls practicing tennis back and forth on the tennis court.  And for a moment, watching Zina, I wouldn’t be surprised if Zina had slipped back into her memories of when she was a little black girl herself just learning how to play tennis.

The Zina Garrison Interview

Tj:  Zina… Z-I-N-A… hello, Zina Garrison are you ready to start the interview?

Zina:  (refocusing back to the interview) Yes, I am.   My name is Zina Garrison a former professional tennis player who grew up here in Houston, Texas, and played on the professional tour for 15 years. I am a gold medalist and was also a bronze medalist back in 1988. I went to the finals of Wimbledon in 1990. And also my highest ranking was number four in the world.

Tj:  What can you tell us that maybe you have never mentioned before or just want to emphasize for our readers?

Zina:  I was a product of a program just like this, but also, Zina Garrison Academy has been going on now for 27 years. So in our 27th year, we have touched over 57,000 kids. It’s really nice to know when you walk around someone and someone says I was in your program. But the other thing is that it takes money. Besides the twenty-five dollar pre-registration session fee –  for everything else we do, we have been able to keep the rest completely free!  Therefore we need money; we need continuous donations, just like everyone else. And we’ve been a free program for 27 something years now. And, you know, things are difficult, but we’re still hanging in there.

Not only that we are really big on collaboration. And so if any readers or if you have knowledge about our program and are interested in collaborating with us in order to keep helping the program go on, please give us a call.  I would also like to give a shout out to… Houston Parks and Recreation! They have been extremely giving – they allow us to use the courts here. And that’s been happening for years and years and years. I would definitely like to give a shout out to them for partnering with us and allowing the kids to have that opportunity. Also, the City of Houston has been extremely gracious in their donations which has kept this program going for years.  One more shout out goes to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.  Three years ago, I was ready to give up on the program, Sheila did not let me quit and she kept it going.  She has a saying, which is true; “She’s the ambassador of our funding.”

Tj:  I’m sure our readers will be very interested to learn more about the educational aspects you are offering your tennis students. Can you give us some information on what you offer? And how you construct it for the children you mentor here?

Zina:  We’re very fortunate. First and foremost we have a big tutoring program that’s part of Zina Garrison Academy (ZGA) that we do as well for our educational component. So when the kids come out, during the school year, we’re making sure their classes for homework or projects are taking care of and if they need help, they can get help. The other thing is we have a nutrition program that’s done by Rachel Baxley, who is a Zina Garrison (ZG) a staff member who helps that as well as with everything else. We have a garden in the back, so she teaches them about proper eating, what’s in your food, how to grow things, and the better health of your character – helps build self-esteem. It’s great to see the students take pride in their (ZG) community garden.

One of our partnerships is with the United States Tennis Association (UTSA) and they use a program called the Academic Creative Engagement (ACE). It has a great curriculum that teaches… Fitness, Wellness, and Education. There are certain days that we set aside, where they’ll practice tennis, then go out to work in the garden, have a healthy snack and then back out to practice tennis again.

Our garden is sponsored by Cheerios and Wal-Mart.  As a matter of fact, some of the things we’re growing this season are watermelons, tomatoes, squash, corn, two lemon trees, grapefruit trees, and pollinators-which are rosemary and sage, and then we have strawberries.  And lastly, we teach the children how to make our own compost. The children are learning about composting where instead of throwing away our banana peels and apples and other foods that can that are biodegradable they recycle them. Let’s go to the back, there’s the storage container; we add grass and straws. And so somebody comes every other day, whoever wants to turn it, and they spin it around (the container) so that it can mix everything together. We use it because our garden is all organic. And we use organic compost we make, but we don’t use any pesticides in our garden.

Then we have the University of Texas, who does a college prep course where they come out and help kids from middle school to understand how important it is to start thinking about a college, where they might want to go. It’s not teaching them about UT; they share information about other universities. It’s really just getting in their mind that college can be great, but you have to start early and start focusing in on education. So I’m really excited about that program because it’s certainly the first one of its kind with the University of Texas partnership, within a public park.

Tj:  From your website, we see that you have a relief effort for victims of Hurricane Harvey, and had a fun day at the park. How has the community responded to these events? And do you have anything planned for the second half of this year?

Zina:  Well, the hurricane relief actually started, because I was a victim of Hurricane Harvey.  My house was totally flooded out and everything was damaged!  But in the midst of all; because of what I went through myself, I said to my staff, let’s go down to the convention center and help out. Also, we visited Windsor Village because there’s a park where they use to play tennis.  It was just therapeutic because of what I knew and I was feeling tension myself. That got me thinking what were the kids feeling?

And so I wanted to help them with some relief. Well, some of the people stopped and allowed their kids to play tennis and they absolutely loved it. So that was a great asset that we did in the time of need, and the October fit-Friday… It’s normally hosted in October – we’re trying to get people to not be afraid of the word fit. We want them to come out and enjoy, whether it’s aerobics, or it’s yoga, or whether it’s veggie soup fitness. There’s a trainer here in town, who I absolutely love. He helps transform us and he has been an inspiration to me.  I mean he really helps you to work on mind, body, and soul.  He helps you to not be afraid to work on your body.  He also helps you to like your body with no excuses, so that you can learn to love your body. Many of us know that even when we lose weight we never look at our bodies as totally perfect.

Tj:  How did you come up with the idea of starting a tennis organization here in Houston?

Zina:  John Wilkerson, who just turned 80 years old last week, taught me how to play tennis right here at McGregor Park.  We estimated that John probably has over 100,000 kids that he’s touched in the era of his days of tennis.  I happen to be one of those kids.  So it was just kind of like a natural progression to start a Tennis Academy here.  I just wanted to give something back.  And when I retire one day and it won’t be soon, but when I do retire, I can look back and say, I also rejoice-fully gave the opportunity to allow kids to at least learn the game.

Tj:  How did you first start? Do you remember the first time you put a tennis racket in your hand?

Zina:  Yes, I definitely remember. My brother was a baseball player. He played for Texas Southern University, the baseball field and the tennis courts are right behind each other. He also had a girlfriend that played tennis and I didn’t want to go to the baseball field. So, one day I sat down at McGregor Park on court one. I was watching two men play, one of which was John Wilkerson. I can’t remember who the other guy was. I thought it was an interesting game.  John Wilkerson walked over and asked me, “Did I enjoy just sitting there using God’s air?”  I was a pretty arrogant kid, and I said yes. Then he asked me if I wanted to try hit a few tennis balls over the fence. Well, my first ball got me hooked. I was so excited! He then told me how to keep it in the white lines, and other unique tips, like always keep your feet moving and just stay ready.

Tj:  That’s a beautiful touching story:  Tell me this: because of leaders such as yourself, Venus and Serena Williams, Arthur Ash, Lori McNeil and more recently Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff, among many others, there seems to be a rising interest in tennis among children of color. With your tennis academy have you found this to be true?

Zina:  It’s a rising tennis period! But for diversity, it’s been there since Venus and Serena have been on tour.

Tj:  Can you tell us your experience working with these beautiful young people that you teach here at your Academy?

Zina:  I think the biggest thing – whether it’s good or bad, is they have so many other activities that they can choose from, and sometimes it’s hard for them to commit – especially if they really don’t like to be outside; not like my generation who love being outside.  But once they get out here and they start playing, they really start enjoying it.

Tj:  You obviously have a lot of passion for what you do.  Your goal of not only teaching the young people tennis but your commitment to making sure they receive the education they may not receive in school and becoming outstanding citizens when they are grown is wonderful.  What drives you to work so hard to accomplish these goals?

Zina:  What drives me more than anything is just to see the smiles on people’s faces; upon trying something different, something new, more than anything. And the other part of it is I was one of those kids, as you know, that had the opportunity to try different things. And when I tried tennis, I absolutely loved it.

Tj:  So who’s who on your staff? 

Zina:  Pharaoh Ra/Tennis Instructor; Addison Aitch/Assistant Tennis Instructor; Yolanda Sadberry/Program Director; Rachel Baxley/Assistant Program Director Nutritionist; John Wilkerson/Tennis Director Emeritus; additional summer help that will be Larry Thomas and Raymond Martinez.  And of course, I have wonderful board members.  Once again, just browse over my website.

Tj:  Besides visiting/browsing over your website… zinagarrison.org.  How can someone find your location and visit to see your academy in action?

Zina:  My website is the best way because we have all the information on there. But also, you know, come out and talk to my director her name is Yolanda Sadberry if I’m not here she’s definitely here and just come out and see it for yourself. Come and watch the love of playing tennis.

Top Photo Credit:  Priscilla Graham

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