As a player, Zina Garrison was known for her speed. She was pigeon-toed, not at all imposing. But when she was on the other side of the net, there seemed to be four Zinas, one for every corner of the court.
In her own way, she was a pioneer among African-American female tennis players, sandwiched between Althea Gibson, whom she befriended in the last years of the legend’s life, and the Williams sisters. In fact, she was a bit of a prequel to Venus and Serena Williams, emerging from Houston’s inner-city public courts to become a junior national champion who rose to as high as No. 4 in the world.
Unlike the Williamses, Garrison never won a Grand Slam singles title. Yet she won 14 singles and 20 doubles titles, finishing with a solid 587-270 singles record. Her personal highlight reel features a 1989 triumph over Chris Evert in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, a win that sent Evert into retirement. Then there was Garrison’s run through Wimbledon the following year. She eliminated French Open champion Monica Seles in the quarters and the world No. 1 Steffi Graf in the semis before losing to friend and mentor Martina Navratilova in the final.
Now comes the flipside – an ugly lawsuit against the USTA alleging racial discrimination in the organization’s treatment of Garrison in her five-year tenure as Fed Cup caption.
Captain Garrison was 5-5 in Fed Cup matches and never reached a final. But there were highlights there, too. Just maybe not enough for the USTA, which chose not to bring her back at the end of 2007. They let her coach one more year, giving her a No. 2 “coach,” Mary Joe Fernandez, who was also publicly announced as her successor. Last year, in essence, Garrison wasn’t even a lame duck. She had no legs.
Race suits are never pretty, even when they are clear, easy and incontrovertible – which this one isn’t. Most often they disintegrate into he said/she said affairs, where both sides are ultimately bruised. Or they’re settled and only the lawyers win.
This isn’t the USTA’s only brush with alleged racial discrimination. It is also being sued by former administrator Marvin Dent in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Dent, who is black, alleges he was bypassed for the position of director of tennis at the National Tennis Center in favor of Whitney Kraft, who is white. Dent also alleges a pattern of discrimination at the USTA, which it has denied.
Three years ago, the USTA entered into a consent decree with New York’s attorney general that forced it to create an open process for hiring chair umpires. That followed a suit by two black umpires, alleging the USTA allowed racist comments directed toward African-American umpires. The decree lasted two years.
Garrison alleges unequal treatment relative to her counterpart, U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe – specifically unequal pay and unequal resources. She also argues that while she was never given more than one-year deals, Fernandez, with as much coaching experience as me, was signed for three years out of the box – and at a salary higher than Garrison’s, the lawsuit alleges.
Garrison claims that the USTA may seek to justify Fernadez’s deal by saying she is required to take on additional public duties.
But perhaps more disturbing are the alleged comments attributed to Sara Fornaciari, the Fed Cup chair. If true, they embody the underlying thread of racism that still must be eliminated.
Garrison alleges in the suit that Fornaciari “routinely referred to Garrison as the ‘Black Ghost,’ to impugn Garrison’s reliability.”
At a Fed Cup semifinal in Stowe, Vt., in July 2007, Fornaciari allegedly told Garrison after a media interview: “That was the most intelligent media comment I have ever heard you give.”
Garrison took it to imply that she was “generally inarticulate and stupid,” according to the suit.
In August that same year, Garrison alleges that Fornaciari told her to go to a tent at a USTA sectional event because she might “get a lot of minority business.” Garrison says in the suit she was “troubled by the implication that she could network only with other minorities.”
Some of the allegations may seem benign, but they tugged at Garrison, who writes that she later called Fornaciari to say she was unhappy with the tone of her comments.
“In response,” says the suit, “Fornaciari launched into a vitriolic attack against Garrison and other African-Americans, including the Williams sisters. She told Garrison she was trying to ‘help’ her, stating, ‘Let’s face it. You can’t talk. Nobody ever knows what you are saying.’ “
Garrison challenged the tone of Fornaciari’s remarks, but Fornaciari, according to the suit, “became irate and announced in a loud and angry tone, ‘I will never speak to another black person again.’ “
The USTA would not make Fornaciari available but had a statement:
“The USTA takes all allegations of discrimination seriously and takes pride in its numerous diversity initiatives and achievements,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said.
“The USTA elected not to renew Ms. Garrison’s Fed Cup captaincy based on her performance, and strongly denies any allegation of discrimination asserted by Ms. Garrison.
“During Ms. Garrison’s five-year tenure as captain, the United States Fed Cup team did not advance to the Fed Cup final, its longest drought in the competition’s 45-year history.”
The suit also alleges that Garrison was also blamed for not being able to regularly recruit the Williams sisters, the two top American players, to play the Fed Cup (more than once, one or both of them would commit to playing, only to be sidelined by injury, which the suit alleges the USTA viewed with suspicion); and that in replacing Garrison the USTA wanted a “public face” and concluded she did not have “the look” it wanted for the team.
Like some other sports, and numerous corporations, the USTA likes to tout its “diversity initiatives,” whatever they may be. That’s all well and good, but when the words from the men and women charged with leading these initiatives and their enterprises represent the antithesis of what those initiatives aim to achieve, it tells me we still have a very long way to go.
And some places are not getting there fast enough.