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MaliVai Washington on Men's Tennis Today and His Historic Wimbledon Run 20 Years Ago

In 1996, MaliVai Washington was the talk of the tennis world when he became the first African-American man to advance to the Wimbledon final since Arthur Ashe.
Photo by Robbie Mendelson/CC BY-SA 2.0

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From 1992 to 1997, MaliVai Washington was a reliable top-40 player on the ATP Tour who was nonetheless overshadowed by other U.S. players such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Jim Courier. Still, for two weeks in 1996, Washington was the talk of the tennis world.


That year, he defeated American Todd Martin in the Wimbledon semifinals after trailing 5-1 in the fifth set and became the first African-American man to advance to the tournament's final since Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win there 21 years earlier. Washington lost his match in straight sets to Richard Krajicek, and persistent knee injuries forced him to retire three years later, at age 30.

Regardless, Washington made a mark in a sport that has had few African-American stars, and no black man from the U.S. has made a Grand Slam final since his Wimbledon run two decades ago.

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Washington, 47, now lives in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, where he owns a real estate company and helps run the nonprofit MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation, which he founded in 1994. He has been honored for his work off the court with the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award from the ATP Tour in 2009 and the NJTL Founders' Service Award last year from the USTA last year. Washington spoke with VICE Sports on Friday morning about his career, 1996 Wimbledon, the state of American men's tennis today, and more.

What do you see in the players now that you didn't see in your time? Do you think the guys you played with could compete with the guys nowadays?

What I see is players who are getting bigger, both on the men's and women's side, in terms of height. It just seems when I was playing, 5-11, 6-feet for the men was a good size. Now you have a lot of women who are 5-11, 6-feet. I think the tallest player on the men's side is 6-11. You have Milos Raonic in the [Wimbledon] semifinal right now, he's probably 6-9-ish. [Editor's note: He's 6-foot-5]. You have a lot more players who are bigger and taller, but they don't seem to be sacrificing their movement around the court. I think I see that in other sports, as well. I think I see it in basketball. I see it football. The players are getting bigger and stronger, but they're still just as agile and as quick and fast.


Is that just because of training, the way they're able to train better than before?

It seems that with technology and nutrition, everything in tennis is more of a science today than it ever was. What I mean by that is players who are able to track everything they're doing from their training to their nutrition to their heart rate to how much water they're drinking, how they're feeling. They're tracking it very detailed. That carries over into match analysis. There are some players who have access to hundreds and hundreds of matches of different players. It's getting very much like baseball. I feel in baseball, there is a statistic on every single possible thing you can think of. It's not left to chance. In baseball, this is a pitcher's most likely pitch when it's a 2-2 count. In tennis, it's very similar. It's getting to the point where on break point down, this is a player's tendency. A lot of times, you don't know what a player's going to do, but if you have a good idea of what their tendencies are, that can be the small edge that you need to win a match.

Back when you were playing, the technology wasn't there like it is today.

When I was playing, the majority of the scouting was sitting in the stands watching your opponent, or my coach watching my opponent. I had a VCR at home and I would record on VHS tapes matches of players and I would analyze that. In this day and age, you can go on the internet and pull up a guy's match and look up at the statistics and look at his first serve percentage and look at his tendencies. You can do that from a computer in your hotel room. Technology has advanced the game, I'll say.


Richard Krajicek and MaliVai Washington before the Wimbledon final. Via YouTube

Did you feel good going into the 1996 Wimbledon? Did you feel you were playing well and could make a deep run?

Ironically, for whatever reason, I never had a lot of success at Wimbledon prior to '96, though I thought my game should play well on grass. I did have success at other tournaments leading into Wimbledon over the years, but never had success at Wimbledon. I can't really say I felt this huge rush of confidence going into '96 Wimbledon, but you take it one match at a time. As I started progressing through the first week, certainly my confidence was growing. When certain players started falling out of the draw, it was going to be an opportunity for someone to break through and get deep into the second week.

In the quarterfinals, you played Alex Radulescu and won a five-setter. What do you remember about that match?

It was a grueling five-set match and it was against a quality player. It's one of those matches where I think I went in feeling like I should win the match, but three hours in, you find yourself in a dogfight trying to get to your first [Grand Slam] semifinal. And he's trying to get to his first semifinal. I just remember it just being a dogfight out there.

When you were trailing 5-1 in the fifth set in the semifinals against Todd Martin, was there any doubt in your mind? Were you getting nervous there?

I jokingly say at 5-1 down, I strategically planned it and that's exactly where I wanted him. Jokingly, I say that. You never plan on being down 5-1. When I'm in the semifinals of Wimbledon, at no point are you about to throw in the towel. The only time you throw in the towel is when you have just lost the last point and you're shaking hands. Then you can give up and say, 'OK, I'm done. I lost.' Prior to that, you're in the semifinals of Wimbledon. You're never going to give up. You're never going to stop trying and stop pushing. I mean, this is the semifinals of Wimbledon. This is the pinnacle, one match away from the biggest match of your career. You're not gonna give up just because you're down 5-1.


As I've said many times, I'm not sure why it turned around. Certainly Todd got tight and he could feel the nerves because he was also trying to reach his first Wimbledon final. I just kept saying to myself, 'Whatever you do, just make him play. See if he has the guts to finish the match.' That's what I advise all players to do. Just because you're down, you never want to just start giving away points in games and give away the match because that makes it very easy for your opponent. You really want to see if they have the guts and the mental capacity and the nerves to finish out the match.

I just kept telling myself, 'Make him play, just make him play. Don't give him anything.' Lo and behold, I just started clawing my way back into the match. At some point there, the crowd started getting a little bit more boisterous and they were wanting to see more tennis and they were witnessing this big comeback. It was a very special moment for me.

The match was suspended by rain four times. Once you won that last point, you must have been thrilled.

It was a very tiring match, [I was] just very fatigued. With all of the rain delays, you walk off the court and you don't know if you're gonna be off the court for 30 minutes or three hours. You can't really let your guard down. You're trying to relax, but you're also trying to stay loose and you want to stay prepared because there'll be a point where an official will come into the locker room and say, 'Hey, we're walking out in less than ten minutes.' You're trying to stay mentally and physically prepared to go out at anytime. Once that match was over, it was a thrill. It was the greatest win of my career and the greatest moment of my career up to that point. To come out with a victory was phenomenal. It's the moment that I've always cherished.


What was it like heading into the final against Krajicek? Was there a lot of attention for being the first African-American to make the final since Arthur Ashe?

I think when you're in the semifinals and final of Wimbledon, there is a lot of attention around you when you're on the grounds of Wimbledon. There was a lot of attention when I was walking to the practice court and trying to practice, just a lot of people around. It certainly wasn't something I was used to, to that degree, but that's where I think it's important to have the right people around you. I had my brother [Mashiska] there who was supporting me and helping me the entire tournament and just keeping things in perspective for me. Even though there is a lot more attention and a lot more press and a lot more people and a lot more autograph seekers, really you're there to do one thing, and that's to win a tennis match. That was my focus going into the final, doing everything I could to prepare and win a tennis match.

Do you look back and think Krajicek was just the better player in the final? Was there anything you think you could've done differently?

On that particular day, he was the better player. I give him credit for going out under the same pressures I had. He played a better match than I did. I'd say it's as simple as that. In moments like that, it comes down to execution on big points and the player who can control their nerves and also play good tennis throughout. Not great tennis, not the best tennis of your life, but success comes down to the player who can play good, quality tennis. I wasn't able to match his quality.


Being linked to Arthur Ashe and being the first African-American man to make a Grand Slam final since him, was that special for you?

Afterward, it was special, certainly, but during Wimbledon, that wasn't my primary thought. Certainly there were many people in the press who brought up that fact, that I was the first African-American to be in the quarterfinals since Arthur, the semifinals since Arthur, the final since Arthur. It was fact, but I wasn't really thinking about the historical value of what was going on. I was just thinking, 'How do I win a tennis match?' Really, it was up to tennis fans to think about the historical value. Now, after the match and after my career, I can certainly think back and look favorably upon that and say that that was a great accomplishment. I would've liked to have done one better and won Wimbledon. That would've been very, very special, but it wasn't meant to be.

Did you know Arthur at all? Was he someone you looked up to?

I didn't know him as a friend or didn't know him closely but had the opportunity to speak with him on two different occasions. I really admired him as a person and certainly as a player. I've always said I admired more about what he was able to do off of the tennis court with his notoriety. He, unlike most players, chose to use his platform for social justice or to create awareness for different illnesses or create awareness for social issues around the world, whether it be apartheid or something else. Not very many athletes in the history of any sport have put their name out there on the front line and stood and walked on the front line for causes, especially as vocally as he did. Not everyone can do that. Not everyone feels comfortable doing that. But that's what I admired most about Arthur.


Is there a tennis component to your foundation?

Our foundation is really a three-part program. It's not an athletic program. It's not a tennis program. It's really a three-part program that consists of tennis, life skills, and education. With those three impacting our students every single week, we've created a program that allows young people to excel. When they're in our programs, they not only excel, but they succeed. Regardless of what their economic situation is at home, regardless of what their family situation is, it allows them to succeed. So much in life, all we want is a chance. So much in life is not given to us, but if we're given the chance to succeed, we can really show what we can do. With our students, if they're given the chance to succeed, which they are, then they can really show us and the world what they can do.

It seems like your parents gave you and your siblings that chance [sisters, Micheala and Mashona, and brother, Mashiska, played professional tennis]. Are you grateful for that?

First and foremost, I would say that my parents set a great example for us. My parents are still married to this day. Fifty-six years, I think they've been married. They were two college-educated individuals who worked hard day after day after day. That is one thing that they instilled in us. If it's one thing I could say, the overriding thing that they instilled in us was the value of hard work and being willing to put in the time if you want to succeed. If you think about it, if every parent was able to instill that in their kids, the value of hard work and being willing to put in the time to succeed, how much more success would we see in the world today? I'm grateful to them for everything they did for me and my brothers and my sisters, not only for our tennis careers but for setting an example of 'this is how you raise kids', 'this is how you parent your kids', 'this is how you set an example for your kids to follow'. That's what I try to do today with my two kids, who are 13 and 11.


When you were growing up, there were a lot of great young American players: Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier. Do you have any memories of playing them in junior tennis?

I played Andre when we were in 12-and-unders in San Diego, California. I played Pete Sampras in 14-and-unders in Shreveport, Louisiana. I played Michael Chang in Dallas, Texas, in 18-and-unders. These were guys I grew up with playing and rooming with, in some cases, in tournaments and at tennis academies. It was kind of interesting because all of them chose to go pro early and forgo college and I chose to go to college [at the University of Michigan for two years]. It was always an inspiration to me, a driving motivation for me when I saw the success that Chang, Agassi and Courier were all having on Tour as professionals knowing that just one, two, three years prior, these were the players I was competing against at tournaments and beating. That was a motivation for me when I was in college.

Were you satisfied with the way things turned out in your pro career?

I'm happy with my career. I'm not satisfied with my career. There were things I wanted to accomplish and did not, but I'm happy that I think I took my God-given ability and I didn't squander it. I think I worked my butt off day after day to try to become the best player I could. I reaped the rewards of that. I think there's always part of you that looks back and says, 'What if?' But I try to look at it from both sides of the coin. What if I hadn't gotten injured? Could I have had the career I wanted and achieve some of the things that I wanted to achieve? But the other side of that is, What if I had gotten injured one year into my professional career and I stayed on Tour for two years? I've always been one to appreciate what I was able to achieve.


American men's tennis hasn't gone as well since your era. Do you have any thoughts on the reasons for the drought?

I don't have a good answer for you. The USTA doesn't have a good answer for you. But this is something that every tennis federation goes through. I'd say for American men's tennis, the heyday was in the 1990s, without question. We're going through a rough patch in American tennis right now if the goal is to produce Grand Slam champions, the last one being Andy Roddick in 2003 [at the US Open]. We have quality players playing at a high level. Sam Querrey just showed that this tournament at Wimbledon [defeating No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic in the third round and advancing to the quarterfinals]. But we haven't been able to produce those Grand Slam champions. I know a lot of time, effort and money is being spent to do that. It just hasn't worked. But every country goes through that at some point. Look at Australia, look at Spain, look at Sweden, they're struggling with the same challenges the USA is struggling with right now. And then go figure, a small country like Serbia has the No. 1 player in the world [in Djokovic]. Sometimes logic doesn't always explain what goes on or can explain it.

James Blake at the New York Marathon last year. Photo by Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

James Blake had a good career, but it doesn't seem like tennis has caught on in the African-American community. Why did you think that is? Does more outreach need to be done?

I think part of it comes down to a numbers game. The overwhelming number of African-American athletes here in the United States gravitate towards football and basketball. Millions of young black boys gravitate towards basketball and football. Consequently, where do most black athletes excel? Basketball and football. Look at any NFL team or any NBA team, that's where they excel. If here in the United States we had hundreds and hundreds of thousands of young black boys and girls gravitating towards tennis, let's say, or gravitating towards golf, guess what? You would see more success at every level of junior, college and pro in those sports..


I don't know what would change those numbers dramatically because I think basketball and football will always be very popular sports. I don't know what's gonna change the trend. I hope the sport continues to get more and more players of all races – black, Hispanic, Asian, white players. I hope it continues to get a more and more diverse group of American players that succeed. But even when you do that, there's no guarantee you're going to get players that are going to go win Grand Slams. One of the toughest things in the world to do is go win a major. Just because you have a lot of players playing doesn't mean it's going to happen. I think it'll happen eventually, but I don't know if you're gonna have an American man win a major next year or ten years from now. I just don't know.

And then you see someone like Serena Williams winning more than 20. Are you amazed at how the Williams sisters have been able to do so well in the last 15-20 years?

I'm proud of what they've been able to accomplish, and I'm amazed at it. What they've been able to accomplish, regardless of their race—just take their race out of it. What they've been able to accomplish as two sisters is absolutely phenomenal. Certainly people acknowledge it, but I don't know if anyone truly has written about or given them the credit for the success that that one family has. I'm thinking of sports, and I'm going back 50 years, and I can only think of a couple of family members that have had this type of success. In baseball, you had the Bonds, Barry and his dad [Bobby]. I'm sure there's a few more that are skipping my mind that I can't think of right now. In basketball right now, Klay Thompson with the Golden State Warriors, his brother [Trayce] plays for the Dodgers.

These are two Hall of Famers, Venus and Serena. Serena looks like she might finish her career being the best ever and Venus is gonna finish her career being one of the best ever. And to think that comes out of one family, that's not something that is gonna happen for the next 100 years. It's never happened before. I don't know what would make you think it's gonna happen in the next generation or two. That's how special and rare and unique and fascinating their accomplishments are.

Do you coach or play tennis anymore?

I still play tennis. I do not coach tennis. I don't have a desire to be out on the court hours a day teaching tennis or even getting out on the road for weeks and weeks a year coaching a player. That's not where I think my skills are or my interest level is.

Do you compete in any tournaments anymore or just play for fun?

It's probably been a good four or five years since I've played any [senior tournaments]. Once I retired, I never had a big desire to go out and compete at the senior level or compete at senior Wimbledon. For whatever reason, that wasn't a big interest of mine.

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