WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND -- They started calling me immediately. They are the foreign reporters who wanted to know how I felt about Zina Garrison's upset of Steffi Graf. And as the last black player to reach a Wimbledon final, I had good news and bad news.
The good news is that Garrison's victory is of both symbolic and substantive success for an African American. Symbolic because no black woman had reached the final of the world's most prestigious event since 1958, the year that Althea Gibson of Harlem won the second of her two Wimbledon crowns. And Garrison is the first to play for the women's title since the open era began in 1968.
The 26-year-old Texan's win was substantively important because, aside from ethnic precedent, the rest of the women's game will henceforth view Graf as less than her normal invincible self and cast a suspicious eye at Garrison.
Now the bad news. Though groups as concerned as the U.S. Tennis Association (the governing body of the sport in America), the International Tennis Federation (the governing body worldwide), the American Tennis Association (the predominantly black national organization) and the Black Tennis and Sports Foundation offer programs for minority youth, the success of a Zina Garrison was still the work of an individual rather than a program.
It's a fact of life that no one can expect droves of Zina Garrisons, any more than we could have realistically expected Debi Thomas to occasion a mad rush among blacks to ice skating rinks two years ago.
Garrison was the product of John Wilkerson, a black tennis instructor at MacGregor Park in Houston. He ran a program at that public park, but his program ceased operating when he began to travel with Garrison to major tournaments.
In contrast, most private clubs with their own facilities and staff of instructors can carry on when a few junior members make names for themselves.
According to an informal but now oft-quoted poll taken of the best American juniors at the Easter Bowl in 1987, nearly three-fourths of them came from homes of at least $60,000 in annual income, and college attendance was both expected and not even cause for financial concern.
Garrison came from a fatherless and large family where she was the youngest and a college degree was a dream. Now she is a millionaire and is just beginning to come into her own. She is happily married, has a new coach and said she felt strangely "relaxed" before and during her match against Graf.
Saturday in her first Grand Slam final, Garrison must forget the wins over Monica Seles and Graf, and face an opponent who is equally determined to make history. Should Martina Navratilova win her ninth title, she will have broken the tie with Helen Wills Moody and become the winningest woman in Wimbledon history. If Garrison wins, she will become the first black woman victor since 1958 (though she will understandably put that in perspective).
The experts pick Navratilova. But I believe Garrison can win; I believe Garrison will win.