She didn't hold a tennis racket in her hand until she was 10 years old. Growing up in Houston's inner city, the youngest of seven children, Zina Garrison took the term "tennis whites" literally.

But last night, in the first round of the Virginia Slims tennis tournament at George Washington University's Smith Center, Garrison, 21, showed that a little practice and a lot of athletic ability can compensate for a late start.

Garrison, seeded seventh in this tournament, beat a surprisingly tough wild-card qualifier, Ann Henricksson of Minnesota, 7-5, 6-3.

In the tournament's first match, 17-year-old Kathy Rinaldi survived a marathon match of 2 1/2 hours to upset sixth-seeded Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, 7-5, 6-7 (9-7), 6-1.

"That's a tough match to start off the year with," said Rinaldi, whose face at times seemed as red as her shirt from chasing the shots that Kohde-Kilsch banged from corner to corner. "I think we were both a little tight out there."

The second match provided a sharp contrast to the first, which was played from the base line, as both Garrison and Henricksson repeatedly charged the net. The only slowdown was caused by officials, who called more than a dozen foot faults on each competitor.

"I was starting to worry about my feet more than anything else," said Garrison, who learned to play tennis in a public parks program. "I thought at first I wasn't doing it, but when they call that many you know they're right."

Garrison realizes there still is a lot about the game she must learn. But after the speed of her ascent, she is impatient with the small steps she now must take.

"For me, it's not fast enough," said Garrison, who won the junior titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1981, then made it to the quarterfinal round of a half-dozen tournaments when she turned pro the following year. In 1983, she won $111,551 and beat established stars Andrea Jaeger, Hana Mandlikova, Bettina Bunge and Sylvia Hanika.

In a sport with a handful of black professionals, Garrison became an overnight sensation. People began saying she was the best black women's player since Althea Gibson in the 1950s.

"They compared Tracy Austin to Chris Evert. They have to compare me to somebody, too. I'm pretty glad it's Althea," said Garrison, who is just 5 feet 4 but plays with power.

In the third and final match of the night, Pam Casale of New Jersey defeated Terry Phelps of New York, 6-1, 6-4. Casale, a semifinalist in this tournament last year, said she was happy to get the first match of the year behind her.

"It's hard to get motivated. It's like coming back to a job after a vacation," said Casale.

In the tournament's opener, Rinaldi and Kohde-Kilsch played most of the first set with their feet behind the base line. It was a strategy that seemed to favor Kohde-Kilsch, who stands seven inches taller than the 5-5 Rinaldi and covers the width of the court in four strides.

But after each player lost her first serve, Kohde-Kilsch began occasional charges to the net. Most of them got her in trouble, with Rinaldi sending low passing shots by her or dropping line drives at her feet.

"I knew she'd be coming to the net. That's her game," said Rinaldi, who made a dozen good lunging scoop shots to save the first set at 7-5.

The second set seemed to belong to Kohde-Kilsch after she took a 4-0 lead. But Rinaldi fought back and forced the set into a tie breaker. Kohde-Kilsch won the set on an out call that had the crowd whistling their disapproval. But by her mastery of the third set, Rinaldi showed she was not bothered by the call.

"I knew the beginning of the third set was important because she was either going to get very confident or I was going to get her down."

The last time Casale and Phelps competed, seven months ago, Phelps won in three sets. Last night, it appeared Phelps again would push Casale to a third set.

After losing the first set, 6-1, Phelps won the first four games of the second with well-placed passing shots down both lines. But Casale was too strong for her 18-year-old opponent. She won six straight games and the match.

The bee that stung Maryland's Andrea Leand has had an effect on another local player, Eleni Rossides, 16, of Washington.

Leand, from Brooklandville, Md., was scheduled to play Martina Navratilova in a first-round match Wednesday. But her hand became so swollen after being stung by a bee in Florida that she withdrew from the tournament.

Rossides, a senior at Sidwell Friends school, advanced into the main draw by winning two matches in a qualifying tournament over the weekend. She would have been a long shot to beat whomever she was matched against, but with Leand out, she will get the ultimate test. She will fill Leand's spot against Navratilova.

Tournament play continues today at 10 a.m. with five singles matches. Three more contests, including a doubles match that teams Martina Navratilova with Gigi Fernandez against sisters Anne and Elizabeth Minter of Australia, begin at 6:30 p.m.