She was there from the start, avoiding the spotlight as she earned the Williamses’ trust. Zina Garrison agreed to write a reflection on her nearly lifelong relationship with Serena Williams.
Many readers will recognize Zina Garrison as the first Black woman to compete in a Grand Slam final since Althea Gibson in 1956. That was at Wimbledon in 1990. Garrison, a former world No. 1 junior, won Olympic gold in doubles and bronze in singles (both in Seoul in 1988), as well as 14 WTA singles titles during her 15-year career, reaching a career-high ranking of No. 4.
Many people are unaware that Garrison, now 58, has always played an important role in the lives of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Garrison was one of the first—and few—people Richard Williams sought advice and assistance from as he introduced the girls to tennis. Garrison was present from the start, carefully avoiding the spotlight as she earned the Williamses’ trust, not least because, as one family member put it, “Zina is always going to tell it like it is.” She doesn’t mind whether you like it or not.”
Garrison continues to coach, and she recently co-hosted The Goat: Serena, a multi-episode podcast with Tennis Channel analyst Chanda Rubin and numerous A-list guests. Zina agreed to write a reflection on her nearly lifelong relationship with Serena for TENNIS.com. We hope you like it. —Peter Bodo
In 1988, an anti-drug abuse program in Los Angeles sponsored an exhibition and tennis clinic. My friend Rosie Casals, a former pro and one of the WTA’s “Original 9,” approached me. She was ecstatic, saying there was this super-talented kid I had to see. Venus Williams is a young lady.
But when I arrived at the court where the doubles match was taking place, it was Venus’ partner who caught my attention. Serena Williams was poaching returns, pumping her little fist, and high-fiving Venus despite the fact that she was only seven years old and her nose barely reached above the net cord.
“This little girl, she’s just got that fire,” I remember thinking.
Serena Williams is about to retire from tennis after 30 years and 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Over those years, I followed her closely, first as a mentor, then as a coach, and always as a friend and adviser with, I believe, a voice she could trust to always tell her what I thought, and to tell it to her straight.
Serena Williams is leaving tennis in much better shape than it was when she first appeared on the scene, earning her the nickname “the Little One” (a nickname I continued to use over the years). I consider myself fortunate to have played a role in her life and career. I’m a shy person. I’m not looking for attention.
Serena has many qualities that I admire, beginning with her best-ever serve and the way she went about establishing her brand in the game. Most of all, I am impressed by her personal growth. It was a voyage of discovery and desire, fueled in part by her strong faith in God. Serena was led down many paths, from social justice to fashion. For me, the most memorable and powerful episode in her evolution occurred in 2015, when she decided to return to Indian Wells after a 14-year boycott due to an ugly, painful controversy.
I am a person of color. I’m a Christian, and I’m not sure I could have found it in my heart to return to Indian Wells after the suspicion (of non-existent match-fixing), racism, and hatred directed at the Williams family. Serena was at the point in her career where she didn’t need to compete in that tournament by 2015. So why aggravate old wounds? Why consider it from a religious standpoint, as she did? Why should we forgive? But that is exactly what she did. She simply said she forgives after all these years… “Who even does that?” I thought.
Serena is correct. It was part of the evolution I’ve been discussing.
When it comes to Serena Williams, two words come to mind: “trust” and “loyalty.” It was never easy to gain either of the sisters’ trust, partly due to their protective father Richard. Richard knew the girls would face all the dangers that come with being the center of attention from a young age. It didn’t matter that mother Oracene, the family’s rock, had repeatedly encouraged her daughters to be strong, proud Black women.
Many people thought Richard Williams was insane, but in many ways that people didn’t always understand, he was very smart—a perfect complement to Oracene’s strength.
When I was a pro, Arthur Ashe made a point of hosting a gathering of the African-American contingent at Wimbledon on the tournament’s Middle Sunday (until this year, there was no play on that day). We never advertised it, but players, coaches, and even the few Black journalists on the tour were invited by word of mouth, come one, come all. In the overwhelmingly white world of tennis, this was essentially a support system for us.
When Arthur retired from tennis due to deteriorating health, his wife Jeanne called to tell me that now that Arthur was gone, it was up to me to carry on certain traditions. “I don’t want this, I’m an introvert, and I don’t need this pressure,” I told her, stunned and flattered. But after some more discussion, I accepted the role. When Venus and Serena first arrived at one of those informal gatherings, they were ecstatic to be among everyone, in a place where we could just be ourselves, with others who looked like us, and not be judged or scrutinized because we were different, brown or Black.
During the Australian Open one year, Venus called to ask if I could make some of the soul food I was known for, fried chicken and greens, because their mother, Oracene, wasn’t going to be in Melbourne. So I gathered a group of people, including Kamau Murray and Taylor Townsend. We didn’t expect Serena to come because she was too preoccupied with the tournament, but when she walked in with Venus and saw our stunned expressions, she said, “My mom usually does this, but there’s no way I’m missing it.”