Living a Dream

Zina Garrison, whose visions are eerily accurate, has a premonition that she may soon sit atop the tennis world
November 27, 1989

DO THE IMPOSSIBLE. Clothe yourself in Zina Garrison's sensibility. Put yourself behind her almond eyes. Feel what it was like when she went out to end Chris Evert's career two months ago in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open.

In the early games you find yourself playing tentatively, struck by the crowd's yearning for an Evert win. Not that you sense hostility. Few inside the stadium at the National Tennis Center in New York City know anything about you. Your shyness has seen to that. No, you are just an obstacle, a cipher standing in the way of sentiment—and a perfect ending. You feel, you will later say, "nonexistent." It is a sensation you have some experience with.

Whenever the roar of jet aircraft taking off from nearby La Guardia Airport stops play, you straighten and take in the tableau before you. The TV cameras are trained on Evert, on the mother and father who gave so much to her career and on her new husband, Andy Mill, who's easing her out of it. The crowd of more than 15,000 seems to be an extended family that Evert has amassed during 17 years of consistent and graceful victory. You share in the general admiration, but you have to block it out.

Your strategy is to play patiently from the baseline until chances to charge the net present themselves. Few do. You fall behind 5-2 in the first set.

You are ranked fifth in the world and have played Evert 10 times. You've beaten her occasionally, in your uneven past, but never in a Grand Slam match. She has never had anything like your speed, yet almost always has kept you at bay with deft placement and unwavering consistency. But now she allows an opening or two. Each time, you charge, win the point and see Evert feeling the pressure.

So, in something of a departure, you get about it. Crisply, athletically, intelligently, you turn the match around. Caught in crosscurrents of emotion, you wear her down and win 7-6, 6-2. You brush away an honest tear for the departure of the 34-year-old champion and wish that someone else could have effected it. As you prepare to leave the stadium, Evert throws an arm around you.

All right, sporting reader, now slip back into your own senses and consider this: By rights, the outcome of this match should have constituted a succession. No matter how deeply, and universally, Evert's loss was mourned, this should also have been the moment when Garrison was finally recognized as one of the premier players in the world. As much as it was Evert's moment, it should have been Garrison's, too.

In fact, this ascension has not even been noticed by the computer, which still has her ranked fifth, after she lost to third-ranked Gabriela Sabatini 3-6, 7-5, 5-7 at the Virginia Slims Championships last week at Madison Square Garden. Over the years Garrison has lost so many late-round matches to elite opponents that she has allowed the doubtful and demanding collective mind of tennis to conclude that she is a hopeless choker. She has been ranked among the top dozen women for six years, but has never made the finals of a Grand Slam event. She has reached the allegedly advanced age of 26, and her career is judged by many critics to be almost beyond saving.

So at Flushing Meadows, under the scream of the jets, at the moment of her most public defining, Garrison was not granted a fresh, conquering self, just an undeserved load of the world's ambivalence. Unless she wins at least one major, she will be best known as the woman who ended Chrissie's last dream. Yet if you know Garrison's origins, you start to mumble that the labels are embroidered from callous ignorance.

In the hot Houston summer of 1963, Mary Garrison, 42, mother of six, saw a doctor about a swelling in her abdomen. "You have a tumor," the doctor told her and recommended an operation.

Mary got a second opinion. This one offered—you've guessed it—that she was pregnant. This one was right, which came as a shock to the Garrisons, who thought they had concluded their family 10 years earlier. But on Nov. 16, Mary gave birth to a baby girl, who was named Zina for the end of the alphabet, the end of the Garrison babies. Her four sisters called her Tumorlina.

The child was quiet and wary. She was possessed of an astonishing clairvoyance that let her predict without fail the sex of her sisters' babies. "When we were growing up, she used to trip us out," says her brother Rodney. "She always saw visions, and when she was away she always seemed to know when something was happening at home. We called her the Vision Girl."

The life that such vision presented to her was one of swift, incomprehensible loss. When she was only 11 months old, her father, Ulysses, a postman, died of a stroke. A few months later her 21-year-old brother, Willie, a catcher with the Milwaukee Braves' minor league organization, was struck in the left eye by a ball and developed a fatal tumor.

When Zina was small, she would climb out of the bed she shared with her mother and walk through the house in the dark. Sometimes she saw a man moving in the rooms, an apparition, a benign ghost. When she described the man to her mother, her mother knew who Zina was describing—her father.

Baby Zina clung to her mother. Each was the other's great love and solace. "She was the only thing I had," says Garrison now. "I was always underfoot, tagging along." They shared a bed until Zina was 16. They shared every confidence. "My mother was so strong," says Garrison. "She had come through all this death."

The Garrisons lived in a predominately black working-class section of Houston. Mary worked as a nursing-home aide. Zina's brothers and sisters spoiled her, but because they were so much older, she had a hard time feeling close to them. Moreover, she was a tomboy. "My sisters didn't like to sweat," she says. "But I loved to run and dance and play Softball." So she often shadowed Rodney. One day when she was 10 he took her to the tennis courts at nearby MacGregor Park.

John Wilkerson was giving a lesson when he spotted her hanging by the fence, watching. "She was there for an hour," he says. "I walked over and said, 'What are you doing, breathing all the tennis players' air?' She smiled, so I knew she had a sense of humor."

Wilkerson gave Garrison a wooden racket and turned her loose. The kid was fast, and she hit the ball with might and pleasure. Tennis was running, dancing and batting all rolled into one.

Within two months Wilkerson had entered Garrison in local competitions. Not until her third tournament did he realize that she wasn't even keeping score. She watched her opponent between points to see where she should serve or receive serve. Garrison's attraction to the game had little to do with achieving dominance. Instead, it was release, it was instinct.

Her style of play was the opposite of the dependent inner child. She was agile and bold. In 1981, at 17, Garrison won the junior singles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She turned pro, and at the end of '82 was ranked 16th in the world.

About the time Garrison began the traveling tennis life, her mother became diabetic. "She had to take insulin every morning," says Garrison. "But she wanted to enjoy life, she wanted to die happy, and she was happy eating. She loved her jelly beans."

Zina agonized each time she left home, afraid that Mary would fall ill while she was gone. Mary never understood tennis very well, but she knew exactly when to give her youngest daughter a hug, a lift.

While Garrison was staying in a New Jersey apartment during the 1983 U.S. Open, she awoke on a cool night in a sweat, her skin burning. Mary was in a Houston hospital undergoing treatment for the diabetes. Zina walked down the stairs and stood before Wilkerson, who by then was her full-time coach. "My mother has just died back in Houston," she told him. "I know. I just know."

Wilkerson calmed Garrison, and she returned to bed. In Houston, Mary's heart had, in fact, stopped, but she was revived. In the morning, Garrison called home. Wanting Zina to continue in the tournament, Garrison's siblings lied to her, saying that their mother was all right. Garrison lost her match that day, then flew to Houston that afternoon and found her mother in intensive care, in a coma. "She looked like a little baby," says Garrison. As Garrison watched, a tear rolled down her mother's cheek. The doctors said it was merely a reflex. She was incapable of recognizing anyone, they said. Mary died two days later.

This was the loss that Garrison had spent her life knowing would come. However, knowledge was not preparedness. She could not let it sink in. "I just kept telling myself that my mother wasn't gone," says Garrison, "that she was on a long trip somewhere."

To talk with anyone about her feelings was to admit them. So she cemented them over with silence. "I held it in," she says, "while it built up to where I couldn't control it." Another thing happened. "After her mother passed away," says Wilkerson, "Zina seemed to play better."

Perhaps her improved play was the result of a psyche desperate for distraction. Garrison surrounded herself with clouds of acquaintances, shared her feelings with none, and played hard, rising in 1985 from ninth in the world to No. 5. "After big matches," she says, "I just wanted to pick up the phone and call my mother."

That year Garrison beat Evert to win a tournament in Amelia Island, Fla., reached the semis at Wimbledon, the quarters of the Australian and U.S. Opens and earned $274,470 in prize money. She was 21 years old, but under her tough, competitive carapace, she was dissolving.

Often lonely and depressed, she began food binges, devouring bags of cookies, boxes of cereal, cartons of ice cream in a sitting. Then, disgusted, she forced herself to throw up. Her athletic leanness quickly turned to frailty. "My nails were soft, my skin was bad," she says. "I had no energy at all."

Sick, faint and frightened, she did something that now seems to have been the turning point in her life. She summoned the courage to tell Wilkerson about her bulimia. Together, they found a therapist.

The seesaw imbalance of binging and purging was surely reflective of the icy truth sealed in Garrison's interior: She was alone. "The therapist said part of it [the eating disorder] was a way to try to fill the emptiness I felt," says Garrison, "and part of it was like finding a way to hurt myself."

Through therapy Garrison at last began to realize that her mother was gone. "It wasn't until about a year and a half ago that I really accepted it," she says. "It was the key to gaining control, to understanding who Zina is."

By then, her bulimia had overlapped with, and maybe caused, some other shocks. Her relationship with Wilkerson began to suffer. "Zina relied on her intuition instead of analyzing," says Wilkerson. "She always wanted to go out there without a game plan, wanted to just let it happen."

Garrison's two contrasting needs, to be protected and to be true to her instinctive ways, began fighting it out, and Wilkerson got caught in the fray. If he paid his usual attention to her, wrapping her grips, making her travel arrangements, he was smothering her. If he backed off and let her do things for herself, he was ignoring her.

Garrison was in this delicate frame of mind in late 1987 when her best friend and doubles partner, Lori McNeil, told her that, because of a contract McNeil had signed with IMG, the player management firm, she was breaking up their doubles team to become partners with Betsy Nagelson, the wife of IMG president Mark McCormack. Abandoned again. "That hurt me," says Garrison.

What did Garrison do? She fell out with McNeil and fired Wilkerson. "I'm at a loss to explain it," he says. "Maybe after all that loss, she thought, "I'm going to leave him before he leaves me.' I had to force her to talk about it."

Garrison was firm in her decision, and maybe the break was necessary. For coaching, she hired Willis Thomas, a Wilkerson associate who had watched her play since she was 11, but who lives in Florida, not Houston. He says, "I've tried to keep it a business relationship."

Gradually Garrison has willed herself out of her silent ways. "I've gone through a lot because I don't really talk," she says, but she does talk. She speaks clearly and to vivid effect. She will just never speak effortlessly.

As she has opened to the world, her game has steadied. In the quarterfinals of the 1988 U.S. Open, she faced Martina Navratilova, whom she had never beaten in 21 tries. Garrison won the first set but lost the second after squandering four match points—including one on a double fault—and causing many hands to be raised to many throats. But she won the third set 7-5, punctuating the occasion with an unprecedented leap of joy.

She went to the Olympics in Seoul and ate them up. "They were the best time in my life," she says, and she was appropriately bubbly, chatting blue streaks with athletes and strangers alike. In singles, she lost to Steffi Graf but took the bronze medal. In doubles, she and Pam Shriver won the gold by beating Helena Sukova and Jana Novotna of Czechoslovakia 10-8 in the third set.

Perhaps because Garrison has always known that her key to mastery will be found within, she has never seemed tormented over the question of race. She and McNeil are the only black women to be ranked in the Top 10 since the '50s, when Althea Gibson won Wimbledon and the U.S. championships. Many lower-ranked, ponytailed blondes have more lucrative clothing, shoe and racket contracts than does Garrison. Yet, she says, "If I concentrate on tennis, all that will take care of itself."

This year she has the memorable Evert match under her belt. More substantially, she married Willard Jackson, 25, who founded a hazardous-waste disposal company. They met through a family friend and were engaged—Garrison's intuition having sent up skyrockets—within a month. They married on Sept. 23, and among the bridesmaids were McNeil, Garrison's current doubles partner, Katrina Adams, and Robin Givens.

Jackson, a gregarious soul, seems to be good at drawing out Garrison's feelings without overwhelming her. "The best thing," says Garrison, in a phrasing that could be more romantic but not more pertinent, "is he doesn't get in the way. He doesn't get into my tennis. He just sort of goes with the flow and respects my ability."

That, one opines, is what the sharp tongues of the tennis culture should do. Garrison seems a splendid example of how bravery and sport may combine to re-create a personality. She has begun to thrive in a world that her deepest instinct once told her would be nothing but loneliness.

She has a ways to go. She still blasts herself with a perfectionist's zeal. "I have to get more vicious," she said after losing to Navratilova at the '89 U.S. Open. "I really want it. Maybe that's the problem, I want it too much. Maybe I need a 'head' coach."

Yet every time she plays well, it's a tribute to how far she has come. "I'd be selfish," she says, "not to see that I'm blessed to be able to do something this well." In addition, the added stability of her marriage would seem to augur well for her continuing improvement. Certainly she is at a crucial threshold. "Since I was 16," says Garrison, "I have felt I will win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. I still do."

When Zina Garrison speaks on the subject of destiny, one might do well to listen. No promises, you understand, just a premonition.

PHOTODAVID WALBERGAfter 21 losses to Martina, Garrison finally had her day in the sun at the '88 U.S. Open. PHOTODAVID WALBERGBefore Evert embraced her, Garrison felt "nonexistent" en route to her historic win. PHOTOADAM STOLTMAN/AP[See caption above.] PHOTOROBB KENDRICKFired by Garrison, Wilkerson has returned to MacGregor Park to look for another Zina. PHOTODAVID WALBERGGarrison's uncanny intuition told her almost right away that Jackson was the man for her.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)