WIMBLEDON, England — There was this little bird at Centre Court Thursday that kept landing on the grass and setting off the electronic line sensors. Beeeep! The players would freeze, the crowd would groan. Then, the bird would fly away, only to return a few games later.
Perhaps it sensed there was history brewing here. Perhaps it felt a certain bond with the underdog, Zina Garrison — who, too, had often fluttered into the tennis spotlight, become unnerved, and flown away before business was complete. How many tournaments had she exited one round too soon? How many near- misses were drooping from her wings? She was 26, ranked fifth in the world, and yet she had still never been in a Grand Slam final. All around her, these apple-cheeked teenagers were winning championships, getting huge endorsement deals, leapfrogging her like, well, like children.
“Enough,” she seemed to say. Now she stood across the net from the best woman player in the world, five years her junior, and she took a deep breath. It was 4:06 in the afternoon; she needed one point to win. She had blown scenes like this before. Everyone knew it. She exhaled and tossed the ball high, and under the same English skies that once saw her weep after a loss to Virginia Wade, good old Zina finally found her knockout punch — a wicked serve that kissed the line and whizzed right past Steffi Graf, signing her exit papers in smoke.
Down goes the Queen. Up comes the challenger. For the first time in four years, Graf, No. 1 in the world, will not be on the court when the Wimbledon women’s final is played Saturday; for the first time ever, Zina Garrison will.
“Oh, man, I couldn’t have won in a better way,” she sighed afterward, smiling at the biggest upset in women’s tennis this year, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. “To ace on match point to get into your first Grand Slam final. Wow!”
Better great than never. There were obstacles to overcome
But then, Garrison is used to waiting, isn’t she? She was a bit of a surprise child, born 10 years after her next-youngest sibling — who the whole family had figured was the last. (The name Zina, in fact, was chosen for Z, as in last letter in the alphabet.) She didn’t discover tennis until she was 10 years old, hanging around the public courts in Houston. Didn’t turn pro until 17.
She has taken a while to reach this point, because, unlike some of her silver-spooned peers, there have been these obstacles. Her mother’s death. Her brother’s and father’s deaths. An eating disorder, bulimia, which let her gorge on sweets, then make herself vomit. And money. Unlike Graf, who was puppeteered by her father almost from the crib, Garrison had to feel her own way. But, oh, what she must have felt Thursday. Magic? Relief? Here she was, finally, with all cylinders clicking. Graf went deep, Garrison matched her deep. Graf went short, Garrison was at the net in a heartbeat, hitting winners. Even her body language said victory. On set point in the first, she awaited Graf’s serve like a surfer on a red-hot board — bounce, bounce, boom! She whacked a return and Graf hit into the net. First set, Garrison.
Graf won the second, she picked up her game, and everyone figured, “OK, here goes another Zina farewell.” Graf thought it, too. Instead, Garrison grew more aggressive, she slammed back lobs and made passing shots at incredible angles. She broke Graf, took a 3-1 lead, then held serve until that glorious final serve, the ace, which had the steam of a lifetime behind it.
Better great than never. Issue is greatness, not black-white
What a terrific story, a morsel of success for the public- court kids who are all but gone from tennis now, overwhelmed by private academies and 16-hour-a-day camps. Because of these roots, Garrison never got the royal treatment from coaches and managers. Because she is black, she did not get the same embrace from clothing and equipment makers as her blond, ponytailed peers. That is sad. That is fact. Even this week, she has been taking her clothes to Martina Navratilova’s place to get them washed. Garrison still has no active clothing deal; she wears Martina’s line of tennis clothes.
But to turn Thursday’s success into a black-white thing is wrong, it would trivialize Garrison, because she is not a great black tennis player, she is a great tennis player, period. Hey. She is the first person besides Navratilova to take a set from Graf in the last five years at Wimbledon. This, just two days after Garrison stopped the seemingly invulnerable Monica Seles.
Call it a case of old dues finally paying off. And how nice that, after the Day-Glo adolescent tennis news this week, Garrison, a mature woman, will face Navratilova, another one, for the title. Let the kids watch from the stands on Saturday. Give them a pizza.
What they will see are two tennis players who spell perseverance, and one has just grabbed a new ledge on her personal mountain. Better great than never, right?
Said a pouting Steffi after the match: “Zina doesn’t have the game to beat Martina.” Well. Let’s see what Zina’s feathered friend has to say about it. After all, he might just turn out to be a well-known bluebird, sitting happily on her shoulder.