For Couples, Tennis Is a Game of Love : Trend: More husbands of professional players are putting their careers aside to travel with their wives in supporting roles.
Willard Jackson and Tim Harper each have a career and a wife, but for both men, their wife is their career.
As their spouses sweat at this week’s $350,000 Virginia Slims of Los Angeles tennis tournament at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach, Jackson and Harper will be sweating too. But Jackson, who is married to Zina Garrison, and Harper, who is married to Peanut Louie-Harper, will be offering their support from the stands.
They are part of a growing number of men who travel with their spouses on the pro tennis circuit.
According to Virginia Slims tournament director Jan Diamond, only a handful of husbands were present at tournaments a couple of years ago. Some doubled as coaches, but now many travel in supporting roles, much like Jackson and Harper.
“You see it now more than ever before,” Diamond said. “They make the players nicer because they’re happier that their husbands are with them.”
Jackson and Harper play multiple roles in their spouses’ careers: business manager, emotional supporter, avid fan and travel companion.
“For me it’s very important because Willard is a very positive person,” Garrison said. “While I’m on the road he makes sure everything is taken care of. When he’s not there I get extremely nervous.”
Garrison, who is ranked No. 11 in the world, plays in about 18 tournaments a year in several different countries. A former U.S. Federation Cup and Wightman Cup team member, Garrison’s ranking was No. 5 in 1985. She has earned about $3 million in a 10-year professional career, 10 singles titles and 16 doubles titles.
Jackson, her husband of two years, is usually by her side at tournaments. The couple live in Houston, but spend little time there because of Garrison’s rigorous schedule.
“I try to take as much responsibility off her so she can focus on being the best player she can be,” Jackson said. “I take care of everything from business stuff to household things.”
Jackson, 27, met Garrison through a mutual friend shortly after Garrison returned from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, where she won a bronze medal in singles and a gold medal in doubles with Pam Shriver. Jackson, who has a business degree from the University of St. Thomas, also owns a sports public relations firm and an environmental consulting firm in Houston. His priority however, is Garrison and her successful career.
“He’s a nice addition to the tour,” Diamond said. “He seems like a great support for Zina, a rock to have around. He has that air of a man who supports his wife yet has his own life.”
Jackson says he will dedicate more time to his career in the future. For now, his wife is No. 1, and most of his time is spent helping her career.
“My main job is being there as support for
Zina,” he said. “I’m always there and I love watching her play. I’m her biggest fan and her traveling companion. We have a good time together.”
That is not always the case, however. If Garrison, 27, has a bad match, Jackson gets to hear about it first. He accepts it as part of his role.
“I’m there so she can dump it all on me if she needs to do that,” he said.
Harper says he handles losses differently. When Peanut, ranked No. 72 in the world, has a bad match, 24 hours usually elapse before it is discussed.
“There are certain rules husbands have to follow,” Harper said. “If you lose a match you don’t say anything about that match for a whole day. If they win it’s great. They go into the interview room and they love to talk about it. But not when they lose. Peanut gets very emotional.”
Harper, 35, met his wife at a San Francisco tennis club in 1984. He was an account executive for Newsweek magazine and played recreationally at the club where she trained. The couple married in 1986, and Harper quit his job to travel with Peanut in 1988. He now publishes a quarterly tennis magazine, but like Jackson, his wife’s career comes first.
“He’s really sacrificed a lot,” Peanut said. “I went to the first two tournaments of the year alone and it was hard. I really don’t think I would want to do it if he wasn’t with me.
“He holds me together. It’s a tough duty being a tennis husband, but we laugh about it all the time. When we first got married he said: ‘I couldn’t just come and hang out. What do I do, go trade recipes with the other husbands?’ ”
Peanut, 30, has competed on the pro circuit for 13 years. Her highest ranking was 19th in 1985. She has won four singles titles and close to $600,000. She plays in about 17 tournaments a year.
Harper says the lifestyle can be a lot of fun, but it can also become a grind.
“It can be very nerve-racking watching all her matches,” said Harper, who has a degree in marketing from the University of Florida. “At first it was almost unbearable. But we enjoy the travel and we’re really having a great time.”
But what about the male ego thing? Do these men ever find it difficult to live in the shadow of their successful wives?
“It’s a different role in the relationship with the wife in the limelight and I’m in the background, which I like,” said Jackson, a basketball player in college. “For a guy to be in this role he has to set his ego aside and have good self-esteem and be secure.”
Said Harper: “It depends on how you look at it. We look at us as a team. She wouldn’t be playing if I wasn’t here. It’s not the glamorous spot, but it’s an important spot.”
Garrison says her husband’s job isn’t always fun. She believes at times he gets impatient on the road.
“It’s tough for him sometimes because he’s a very ambitious person,” she said. “We agreed that he would help me with my career and when I was done with mine I’ll help him with his.”
Peanut says there is never a problem with her husband because he knows he is an essential part of her career. She seriously considered retiring from professional tennis before he agreed to travel with her.
“He doesn’t sit there on my court and pick up my balls,” she said, laughing. “He has the perfect personality to do this. Not every guy could do this. A lot of men would go bonkers.”