Photography by Hallie Keller –
The story begins at Houston’s MacGregor Park, where Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil were introduced to a free tennis program started by American Tennis Association champion John Wilkerson. Garrison began playing tennis on those courts at the age of 10, McNeil at 11, and the two became close friends and eventually doubles partners.
“We hit it off instantly,” said Garrison. “It was easy since we were the two youngest. We did everything together. It helped us become great friends, and we both went on to become top ten players worldwide from Houston.”
Garrison turned professional in 1982 after being ranked the Number 1 junior player in the world. She reached a career high of Number 4 and became the first African-American woman since Althea Gibson to reach a Grand Slam final in 1990. At Wimbledon, Garrison beat Monica Seles and Steffi Graf in back-to-back matches before losing the final to Martina Navratilova.
With Pam Shriver, she earned the 1988 Olympic Gold Medal in doubles in Seoul and a Bronze Medal in singles. One of the finest doubles players in the game’s recent history, Garrison captured 20 major championship titles.
A scholarship athlete at Oklahoma State, McNeil became an All-American collegiate player with three Big Eight Championship titles. She captured 12 Women’s Tennis Association tour singles titles, 40 career doubles titles and scored a stunning first-round victory over defending champion Steffi Graf at Wimbledon in 1994. McNeil achieved a career high of Number 8 in singles and Number 4 in doubles.
Lori McNeil and Olympic Gold Medalist Pam Shriver.
Retiring from the tour in 2002, McNeil served as the Assistant Coach of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Tennis Team and as Coach for the women’s team in the World University Games. McNeil was inducted into the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000, and most recently, into the 2012 class of the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame.
Fate – and tennis – would bring these two champions together for another important new chapter in their lives.
Hoping to provide similar opportunities to young people, Garrison, with the help of John Wilkerson, took her prize money from the Family Circle Cup and founded the Zina Garrison Academy in 1993. In 2012, McNeil returned to Houston to become Director of Tennis at the Zina Garrison Academy, reuniting the winning team of Garrison, McNeil and Wilkerson.
The Academy Celebrated 20 Years in 2013
For two decades, the Zina Garrison Tennis Academy has been developing stars in the classroom, on the tennis court, and in the community, with free programming year-round. To date, the Academy has provided educational support and tennis instruction to over 25,000 underserved children in Hou-ston, helping them discover their individual talents, stay healthy and become future leaders in the community while learning the sport of tennis.
On Saturday, November 16th, native Houstonian Garrison returned to celebrate both the 20th anniversary of the Zina Garrison Tennis Academy and her 50th birthday. The gala, A Story of Love, included the presentation of the Academy’s “Service with Love” award to tennis legend Billie Jean King. King was honored for her contributions to the Zina Garrison Academy’s program and her championship endeavors on and off the court.
Olympic legends Pam Shriver, Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Carol Lewis were on hand, along with former Texans players Chester Pitts and Travis Johnson, and NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy. They were joined by former tennis professional Katrina Adams and Taylor Townsend, the Number 1 Junior Girls player in the world.