As a child, Zina Garrison learned how to hit a tennis ball on the public courts at MacGregor Park during the 1970s and became, simply, the most accomplished player ever from Houston.
She developed into a Grand Slam champion, a Top 5 ranking in the world, Wimbledon finalist in 1990 with 20 tournament titles, Federation Cup captain, and Olympic gold medal winner and later Olympic coach.
Now Garrison is back where she started, only this time she’s devoted to making Houston a great place to learn and play tennis … again. Like she did.
“I am now the tennis director of Houston Parks and Recreation,” Garrison tells me. “I’m over all the public tennis programs and facilities. The job came open recently and I applied for it.”
Wait... she’s the greatest champion this city has ever produced — and she had to apply for that job?
“To be honest, I was more interested in the benefits than the money. As you get older, you start thinking differently,” she shares.
Unlike the major sports leagues in America, tennis doesn’t provide any healthcare insurance or assistance once a player, even a legend, retires.
“They’re working on it,” Garrison, 58, notes. “But as of now, nothing.”
Garrison said her first priority as Houston’s tennis director is to repair the public courts.
“I want to bring the public tennis facilities up to where I’d be proud, where everybody would be proud, to bring people to use our courts. There are cracks in the courts. Nothing’s really been done in the last 20 or maybe 30 years,” she says.
“I’ve traveled to Florida and some other places and they have really nice public courts. Tennis in Houston was really thriving for a while and we had nice courts and people could play in the parks. We had junior programs. We flourished. That’s my main goal.”
While I had Garrison on the phone, I served up some questions:
CultureMap: Wimbledon is on. You’re familiar with that tournament, right? Who are your picks to win the men’s side and women’s side?
Zina Garrison: Yes, I’m familiar with Wimbledon. I have my alarm set for the early morning so I can watch. I have a weird pick, a more personal pick, for the men.
I would love to see Rafael Nadal keep going on, but it’s going to be tough for him. The guy from Italy, Matteo Berrettini, I watched him play a couple of weeks ago and I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people. And I am absolutely in love with that little guy, Carlos Alcaraz, from Spain. He’s made me watch tennis again.
On the women’s side, I don’t think it will be Iga Swiatek. I think it’s just too hard to keep a streak like hers (35 matches in a row including the French Open title) going in today’s game. It’s really wide open. I don’t really have a pick, it’s just who comes in and plays well at the right time.
CM: What do you think about Natela Dzalamidze, the doubles player from Russian who switched her nationality to Georgia so she could play Wimbledon, which has banned players from Russian and Belarus this year?
ZG: I don’t like that she was able to do that. I was just on the phone with (former pro turned broadcaster) Chanda Rubin talking about what’s going on in tennis these days.
First of all, there is the human rights stuff that’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. We have to start forcing accountability for actions. A lot of people didn’t agree with what Wimbledon did, but I think they had to take a stand.
CM: The women’s GOAT is easy — it’s Serena. But who do you think is the men’s GOAT?
ZG: Wow, that’s a hard one. If you had asked me earlier this year, I would have said Roger Federer because of everything he’s accomplished. But right now I’m going to have to go with Nadal. Nadal has taken tennis to a whole ‘nother level, of getting people to watch, coming out of the pandemic, where he has matches and you think he can’t come back and he’s still grinding no matter what.
For me, he is the epitome of what we need in this world right now: Never give up but not be selfish about helping others. I know it sounds clichéd, but that’s what I’m going through right now.
CM: When I first met you, you were painfully shy. It was hard to get an answer out of you. Now you’re a TV commentator and a regular chatterbox. What happened?
ZG: I was an introvert but I had always been intrigued by people of wisdom. A lot of it came as I developed confidence in myself. I had always been told at a very young age, if you really knew me, I spoke a lot. If you didn’t know me, I would be quiet. I would only speak about things that I was extremely passionate about.
As I’ve gotten older, because of my experiences. I feel like I can help people so I’m not afraid to say what I want to say.
CM: Starting the week after Wimbledon, coaches will be allowed to communicate with men players during matches. Up to now, that’s only been allowed in the women’s game. Every other sport allows coaching. Do you think tennis should allow coaching, too?
ZG: I don’t think coaching should be allowed. That’s one of the great things about tennis. That’s a part of the sport, that you grow and figure things out. You learn to think for yourself.
There’s always been little signals from coaches, but now you have these full blown conversations. Another bad thing about allowing coaching is it gives the players the opportunity to blame a loss their coach. That’s not good for the sport.
CM: You were known for wiggling your butt when receiving serve. Did you know you were doing it? Did you do that on purpose?
ZG: It started off as kind of a joke with my coaches. They said, we need you to move your feet. I said, you mean like this?
So, it started as a joke but I realized that it helped get my feet moving: Okay, I’m going to keep doing this.
I’ll never forget that year after I got to the Wimbledon finals, 1990, I went over to Japan and there were 1,200 people there … and all of them started wiggling!
CM: What was the first extravagant thing you bought for yourself when the tennis prize money started rolling in?
ZG: It was 1982, and I bought a candy apple red Volkswagen convertible with a white top.
CM: You were on the Biggest Loser, the show where contestants compete against each other to lose weight. Let’s just say you didn’t win. Are you happy you went on that show, or do you regret it?
ZG: I was one of the first who had to leave the competition. (No, you were THE first.) It was an experience, but I probably shouldn’t have done it. I think I regret going on there. It wasn’t what I thought it was.
It was reality TV and at the time I didn’t know what reality TV was .I was more ready to get out of there than anything else.
CM: Now here’s the big question, Zina. For years, I’ve had a running disagreement with ESPN 97.5 FM morning host John Granato about which is a more demanding, tougher sport – golf or tennis?
Granato says it’s golf, because the tournament winner has to beat every other player that week, while in tennis the winner just has to beat seven players at most. And, each week, golfers have to contend with a different course.
But, I say it’s tennis because players have to be in top physical condition, while nearly anyone in any shape can win a golf major.
Plus, in golf, players have a caddy helping them make decisions. In tennis, players are on their own.
In golf, you can have a bad day on Thursday and still win the tournament. In tennis, if you have a bad day in the opening round, you’re on a plane out of there.
In golf, it’s the player against the course. There’s no defense in golf. In tennis, there’s a human opponent trying to beat you.
In golf, the ball is lying still. In tennis the ball is coming at you at 140 mph.
So which is the tougher sport, golf or tennis? I’m right ... right?
ZG: Are you serious? Who is this guy who says golf is harder? The answer is tennis and it’s not even close.
You’re playing against someone. You’re only controlling the ball when it’s on your side of the net. You can’t control what the other player is doing. It’s almost like a boxer coming at you.
You have to have both the physical and mental capacity to win. In golf, if you have a bad day, it’s because you’re having that bad day. There’s no opponent competing with you. So, I’m saying it’s tennis.
CM (note to John Granato): I win. Granted, it might have been the way I asked the question. Also, Garrison is a former tennis pro.