In celebration of Black History Month, the International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF) released a digital exhibit, Breaking the Racial Barriers, which is a comprehensive look at the history of black tennis in America. The exhibit includes brief profiles of black tennis pioneers, former pros and current top pros, including tennis greats Serena and Venus Williams and Dr. R. Walter Johnson, who in 2009 was inducted into the (ITHF) as a contributor. Throughout the Australian Open, the will recognize selected black pioneers and current players.

 Zina Garrison, 1990 Wimbledon finalist.

The link that connects tennis legend Althea Gibson to tennis-legends-in-waiting Venus and Serena Williams is anchored in a self-described ‘tomboy’ named Zina Garrison, a top 10 pro in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Coached by teaching pro John Wilkerson, Garrison learned to play tennis on public courts in Houston, TX. She became one of Texas’ best junior players. In her autobiography, Zina, My Life in Women’s Tennis, Garrison reveals that systemic racism slowed her progress. At a junior event in Dallas, she said tournament officials put all the black juniors in the same quarter of the draw.

“They didn’t want John’s program to succeed and they definitely didn’t want me to be the best that Texas had to offer,” Garrison wrote. “They claimed we got in the same bracket due to the luck of the draw,” Garrison wrote. Supporting Garrison’s experience, former pro Malivai Washington said, “I would argue that every black tennis player at some point has seen that.”

At 5-5, Garrison held her own against the game’s top pros with her quickness and attacking style. Punching put-away volleys at the net was her primary tactic and she used it effectively at the 1990 Wimbledon Championships, defeating No. 10 Helena Sukova (fourth round), No. 3 seed Monica Seles (quarterfinals) and No. 1 Steffi Graf (semifinals) to become the first black woman to reach the final since Gibson (1957-58).  Garrison lost to No. 2 Martina Navratilova, the tour’s preeminent serve-and-volley attacker, 6-4, 6-1 in the final. Garrison climbed to a career high No. 4 in 1989 and ended her 15-year career in 1997 with 14 WTA Tour titles and a career high No. 4 ranking. 

Courtesy of International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHF)