Zina Garrison Tennis Academy celebrates 30 years of service to Texas
At age 10, Zina Garrison was set on the path for her future when she first picked up a tennis racquet at Houston's MacGregor Park after the park's head tennis professional John Wilkerson spotted her talent. Decades later, the National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL) chapter that bears her name is doing the same for thousands of Texas youth.
Nearing 30 years of existence in 2022, the Zina Garrison Tennis Academy provides 45 weeks of free tennis and education programming for youths ages 6 to 18 annually in Houston and its suburbs. In addition to on-court instruction, it offers college preparatory classes and lessons on health and wellness, where participants reap the benefits of a five-year partnership with the University of Texas at Austin for their academic enrichment and tend to a community garden.
The impact it's had is obvious: Garrison estimated that the ZGA touched the lives of nearly 25,000 kids in its first two decades, and according to current program director Yolanda Sadberry—a former student of Wilkerson's herself— ZGA participants have a 99% high school graduation rate while its community influence runs deep.
"We have folks who drive 30, 40 minutes one way to get here, to come see us during the week," Sadberry says, "We have folks from all walks of life. We currently have [multiple] generations of one family; they started out [years ago], and then they became parents themselves. They were children in the program, now their children are in the program. A lot of our families are like that. For me personally, I got married, had children and lived away [from Houston] for 20-plus years, but when I came back, I just remembered the family atmosphere that we had here."
The program's pulse and history comes equally from its location at MacGregor Park. Demographic shifts in the surrounding neighborhoods in the late 20th century turned the park into a hub for Black culture, and it became a popular spot for young people to gather for recreational activities; the ZGA is the modern iteration of the MacGregor Park Junior Tennis Program, where Garrison first played under Wilkerson's tutlelage—and he was later her longtime coach on the WTA tour. After graduating college, Wilkerson led tennis instruction at MacGregor Park, and though the majority of his early clients were white, his decision to create a free junior tennis program allowed more youths of color to play—including Garrison and future world No. 9 Lori McNeil.
The mindset that guided the program's beginnings has helped it to fully blossom in the present.
"I think community tennis is very valuable within our community, and especially in minority communities, because a lot of times you come across older people and when you put the young and the older ones together, there's always wisdom there," Garrison told usta.com. "The biggest thing is giving kids the opportunity to be exposed to something new and something like tennis, where it still can be very expensive to play. Once they learn the fundamentals, they can play for life.
"I was fortunate enough that someone wanted to give something back [to me] ... because somebody reached out and gave me the opportunity to play a game I never would've played, for free, I wanted to give back as well."
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The ZGA is one of more than 285 NJTL chapters nationwide supported by the USTA Foundation, the national charitable arm of the USTA, which benefit more than 160,000 youth around the country each year. In all, 43% of these NJTL youth are African American, and Garrison is one of a host of current and former professional players—including Katrina Adams, Rosie Casals, Sloane Stephens and MaliVai Washington—who have ties to programs in the network. And though Wilkerson retired from the day-to-day operations four years ago for health reasons, his influence is still present, too; each year, the program sends a delegation to the storied American Tennis Association (ATA) national championships—where Wilkerson won the men's singles title back in 1971—in an effort to educate its players about Black tennis history, help them find their place in the game in the present, and shape their futures.
"What we do is crucial. It helps in so many ways. They're active, they're getting exercise, they're learning ... they're learning patience, accountability, respect, how to give back, and all of those things are life-long values," Sadberry said. "When we go to ATA national championships and we leave the state, we always take our kids to museums and go sightseeing. Some of our kids have not been outside the Third Ward [neighborhood] of Houston. The exposure is very important. When I was a young Black girl going to a tennis tournament, being the only African American there or maybe seeing just one other ... it was intimidating. I feel like tennis is now moving in the right direction.
"I have an open-door policy and the kids come in and out of my office. Our coaches are diverse. When they look and they see someone else that looks like them, it gives them a level of comfort and makes them think that maybe they could do that when they grow up, giving them the opportunity to do something they might've never [otherwise] thought about doing. It's just very reassuring and uplifting."
In more ways than one, the ZGA takes the mantra of tennis as a lifetime sport to heart; Sadberry says that in addition to enrolling their children, many alumni return to the courts as volunteers in adulthood, allowing the program's current participants to see first-hand what they might grow up to be.
"We just want to plant the seeds for them that there are many different avenues you can take through tennis, that they can stay close to something they love," she adds, "and that tennis can open a lot of doors for them to see the whole big world out there."
To learn more about the USTA Foundation, visit ustafoundation.com.