Thursday, June 08, 2006

Before Venus and Serena, there was Zingin' Zina!

I love reading biographies of people that I find interesting. And one that I just finished reading is Zina Garrison's autobiography, Zina: My Life in Women's Tennis. Zina was a top 10 tennis player throught most of her career that lasted from the early 80's into the mid 90's. A product of the Houston public park system, she's one of the unsung heroes of African American women and African American athletes in general.

Following in the footsteps of the late greats Althea Gibson, tennis star of the 50's, and Arthur Ashe, champion in the 70's and AIDS activist in the early 90's, Zina maintained a high profile for African Americans in the mostly white sport. She was quiet, and sometimes aloof. But mostly because she and her fellow Houstonian tennis player, Lori McNeil, often were made to feel out of place on tour. She did, however, enjoy the friendship of many of the other top players, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver, etc. But on the cusp of her great upset of world #1 Steffi Graf at Wimbledon 1990, she remained the only top ten player to have no major endorsements.

Many less accomplished players ranked below her had long term endorsement contracts. But they also happened to be white, thus making them more "marketable" in the eyes of the big corporations. Arthur Ashe was quoted in Zina's book as saying, "Then we have the example of Zina Garrison. Garrison was once the only player in the top 10 in the world who could not find a corporate sponsor. In her case, she was penalized not for bad behavior or bad publicity, but for "bad" skin. She is black."

Zina also suffered from personal problems. In her first few years on tour, her mother got sick with cancer and died. And all too often, she suffered from a negative body image. She was short and prone to show her weight, though she was a hard worker and extremely fit. This lead to a bout with bulimia.

But Zina did overcome. She defeated almost all of the top players that she faced in her career at least once. And she would win 14 singles titles, almost 5 million in prize money, and was a runner up at Wimbledon. After her upset of Graf, she did start to attract companies like Reebok and Yonex. But more importantly, she won her battle with bulimia and is now the United States Fed Cup captain and a mentor for the more famous Venus and Serena.

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