Tennis Birthdays – Nov. 16, 2015

An accomplished American with a dramatic life story.

Zina Garrison  (USA), 52

Hers was a rags-to-riches story, a rise from the public parks of Houston to the top of the women’s game to the 1990 Wimbledon final on the venerable lawns of the All-England Club, nine years after she won the junior event.

ZinastampGarrison reached world No. 4 in singles and No. 5 in doubles (11 singles and 10 doubles titles on the WTA Tour). She had a long, successful partnership with fellow Houstonian Lori McNeil in doubles, and won three mixed doubles Grand Slams. She also won gold in doubles at the 1998 Olympics in Seoul with Pam Shriver.

But behind the scenes, American Zina Garrison dealt with a lot of demons.

The youngest of seven kids, her father died when she was an infant. After her mother died when she was 19, Garrison struggled with bulimia for eight years. And anorexia, too, her diet at one point consisting of lettuce and broccoli.

“I had never been comfortable with my looks and felt I had lost the only person who loved me unconditionally. The pressure of being labelled ‘the next Althea Gibson’ only made things worse. I felt I was never going to be allowed to grow into just becoming me,” she said in an interview with the Guardian in 2006.

Garrison was 25 when she married the handsome Willard Jackson in 1989. The marriage lasted only as long as her career did and as everything was ending, she fell into depression and even tried to overdose.

Garrison-RG-Townsend

Garrison watches on on Court 1 at Roland Garros last year, as protégée Taylor Townsend competes

These days, she’s still struggling with it. The 5-foot 4 1/2-inch Garrison checked in at 263 pounds when she appeared on the American program “The Biggest Loser” this fall, a special “former athletes” edition. She was eliminated the first week, but vows to fight on.

“I always had a butt. I always had thighs. I didn’t look like the other girls in their skirts. Back then, you were expected to be real thin. My genetics are not the same, and I’m not going to look the same,” Garrison told ESPN.

Garrison was later Fed Cup captain and, after she was replaced by the – let’s face it – more telegenic, skinnier, connected and embedded Mary Joe Fernandez, a former player with absolutely zero coaching experience, she sued the USTA for discrimination. That was in February, 2009; the two sides reached a settlement  in September.

Last year, Garrison was a coach and mentor to fellow African-American Taylor Townsend, a talented lefty who has, and will continue, to deal with many of the same issues. She certainly had a whole lot more relevant experience to pass along than might be the case in the average coach-player relationship.

But it didn’t last long; this year, Townsend (who has virtually dropped off the face of the tennis map and hasn’t played much this year, certainly in part because of injury), began working with the father of lifelong friend Donald Young, a connection that goes back to her childhood tennis days in Chicago.

As for Garrison, she also seems to have dropped off the face of the earth.

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