A Long Way From Durkeeville to Wimbledon
Feb. 23, 2007
Late tennis star and humanitarian Arthur Ashe once said, "My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity."
When the six-year-old future Michigan tennis prodigy Malivai Washington watched Ashe become the first African-American to win a grand slam title, Washington was still a long way from giving the tennis world's racial confines another blow. Now the 37-year-old Washington, who has often been compared to the great Ashe because of his success in the sport, is fulfilling that potential.
He fulfilled it on the court - at the University of Michigan and on the professional tour - but he continues to build another parallel with his childhood idol in an off-court legacy as a successful businessman and philanthropist.
Born in Glen Cove, N.Y., Washington was just learning to play when Ashe beat Jimmy Connors in the historic 1975 Wimbledon final.
Washington's first link to tennis was also his first link to altruism. His father, William, first taught himself to play, and then his five children. When he was the assistant dean at the State University of New York, William decided to teach underprivileged children in the area how to play tennis on the university's new courts.
Washington was five years old when his dad started tossing tennis balls at him. When the family moved to Flint, Mich., a young Washington practiced on the courts at the General Motors headquarters, where his parents worked. The young right-hander was quickly hooked.
"My father used to play a little tennis with his buddies, and I'd just run around - it was sort of like baby-sitting," Washington explained. "But then a few years passed, and one day I woke up and realized, `Hey, I'm pretty good at this.' I really started loving tennis after I began to compete."
Even when Washington reached the grandest stage of his professional career, his father was still teaching him. "He taught me and worked with me my entire career, from junior and college tennis through pro tennis," said Washington.
Tennis wasn't merely an after-school pastime for Washington. Tennis was family.
His older sister, Michaela, played on the women's professional tour, and one of his younger sisters, Mashona, starred in the Women's Tennis Association and was a member of the 1992 U.S. National Team. His younger brother, Mashiska, played on the men's tour after gaining All-America honors at Michigan State - the archrival of Washington's alma mater - in 1995.
One Christmas, the two brothers got each other t-shirts. Malivai's gift to Mashiska read "Friends don't let friends go to Michigan State." The elder Washington enjoyed family rivalry, but he could not have been more supportive of his brother's decision to stay in the Big Ten when he made his college decision.
"Even though Michigan State was a big rival of Michigan's, I was very excited for him to get the opportunity to go away to college and play for another great university," Washington said. "Not only to further his life but his tennis as well. It was a great opportunity for him just like it was for me."
As a teenager on the junior circuit, Washington competed in the in USTA national junior championships and faced some of American tennis' biggest legends-in-training in Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Todd Martin.
During his senior year of high school, Washington lived and trained with his coach Victor Amaya, a former Michigan standout and ATP Tour player. Under Amaya's tutelage, Washington was prepared to take his game to the top of the college tennis world, and it was obvious to the star-in-waiting where he could accomplish that: just an hour south on US-23 at the University of Michigan.
"It was by far the best tennis school in the Big Ten," said Washington. "There were so many positives going into my decision that I just couldn't turn it down. There literally was no other option. I had some other offers to go to other schools, but I would have been silly not to take up the offer to go to Michigan."
Washington said he was able to have the best of both worlds. He was a part of one of the nation's best teams and attended one of the foremost universities in the country while his family and junior coach were a short drive away.
The decision quickly proved to be the right one, as Washington flourished in a Maize and Blue uniform.
As a freshman in 1988, Washington's talent rapidly surfaced at the top of the conference. With All-Americans Ed Nagel and Dan Goldberg leading the way for Michigan, the Wolverine rookie helped the squad to its 19th Big Ten crown in 20 years. He also teamed with Nagel to claim the last Big Ten Doubles Championship title, and was named the conference's Freshman of the Year.
With the Big Ten season wrapped up, Washington and the Wolverines took their best shot at an NCAA Championship since Michigan's first and only title run in 1957. The crew battled past a competitive field all the way to the semifinals before falling to LSU by one point.
After that season, Washington was chosen as one of the inaugural members of the prestigious U.S. National Team. He claimed his first collegiate national title at the 1988 Polo Ralph Lauren All-American Tennis Championships. There he routed eventual American top-50 professional player Jeff Tarango of Stanford in the semifinal round en route to the crown.
The following year, Washington eagerly took over as the Wolverines' leader. He captured his second national title at the 1989 ITA National Indoor Championship, where he took out teammate Goldberg in a hard-fought, three-set final. Washington carried his success into the conference season and was named Big Ten Player of the Year before finishing 1989 as the top-ranked player in the nation.
Despite all of his individual success, Washington's fondest memories from his playing days at Michigan remain the times he shared with his teammates, especially the Big Ten Championship win in 1988.
"We had a team that year that was good enough to win the national championship," said Washington. "Sometimes it's just a net-cord ball that doesn't fall your way or one or two points and that was the case against LSU. It was disappointing that we weren't able to do it but it was gratifying to get as far as we did with the great guys on the team that we had.
"When you're on a team you learn to work with people and support your teammates. Ironically I thought that the team atmosphere at Michigan helped me later on in team events when I played on tour. A lot of guys turn pro at an early age, but I wasn't even considering that. College gave me a great opportunity to advance socially and emotionally and certainly in my tennis game. It was a wonderful experience for me."
An all-court player regarded as one of the fastest in the game, Washington had every intention of coming back for his junior year. Michigan still had one of the nation's top teams and a renowned recruiting class coming in, but Washington had already reached the pinnacle of his collegiate career - solidifying the No. 1 ranking and winning two of the three national singles titles awarded annually.
Then over the summer, Washington tested out his pro potential while playing in some of the ATP Tour's lower-tier events. After winning the challenger tournament in Seattle and securing a victory over a top-30 player, Washington decided it was time to take his game to the next level.
"Things like that made me say that if I'm ever going to go pro, there may not be a better time than right now," said Washington. "That was a very tough decision. I still loved the university. You settle in after two years and it was just a really nice, fun existence. But I kind of felt like the writing was on the wall and it was time to go. Fortunately, I think it was the right decision and I've never regretted it."
The transition was challenging, but Washington acclimated to the new arena as though he was still playing with his dad on the old GM courts in his neighborhood. The newcomer cracked the world's list of top 100 players and earned his first victory over a player ranked in the top 10 when he defeated Ivan Lendl at the Volvo International in New Haven, Conn. Tennis Magazine dubbed him its Rookie of the Year in 1990, and by the end of the next year, Washington broke into the ATP's top 50.
In 1992, Washington notched his first pro tournament title at the Federal Express International in Memphis, Tenn., and catapulted himself to the top 15 by the end of the season. The team-oriented Washington recalls one of his favorite professional moments as representing the U.S. in the team's Davis Cup competition.
But his most noble victory was one over stereotypes and subconscious ignorance.
In 1996, an unseeded Washington marched through the Wimbledon field, beating out some of the game's biggest stars to reach the finals. The journey made him the first black man to reach such heights since Ashe upset Jimmy Connors in 1975. But it was not simply the color of his skin that drew Washington into comparisons with Ashe. A great deal of it had to do with the under pressure poise he brought to the game.
Despite falling to Richard Krajicek in three sets, Washington was able to overcome the tennis world's long-held ideas of race as a respected sportsman at the crowning point of his sport.
"To know that for that period I was the No. 2 player in the world - if only for a brief moment - I was at the pinnacle of the tennis world, it's a great feeling," Washington said. "It gave me such great satisfaction because you work so hard to reach those goals. On top of that to be compared to other great players, including Arthur Ashe, it's a great honor because Arthur was so much more than a tennis player. He always said that he didn't want to be remembered as a tennis player. If that's the case, he said maybe his life was a failure because he knew his main purpose wasn't how to hit a tennis ball over the net."
That same year, Washington also became the first African-American man to be named to the U.S. Olympic Tennis team. He was the first man of color since Ashe to play for the United States in the Davis Cup, and helped lead the team to victory in Brazil in 1997.
A year after Ashe lost his battle with AIDS in 1993, Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price noted: "Sport is the American factory for children's heroes because kids play games; they can relate and be awed. But Ashe was a rarer kind of hero, an example of what to do when playing stops; a role model for adults."
And one of those adults was Malivai Washington.
Later on in his career, Washington spent his down-time at tournaments hosting clinics and exposing inner-city youth to tennis in the cities where he played. The clinics were like an introduction to tennis for 400 to 500 kids on any given day, but with no follow-up process, Washington wondered what more he could do.
"I'd end up going back home in a few days," said Washington. "Maybe I'd see some of the same kids back at the event the following year, but it got me thinking about what kind of things I could do to have an on-going relationship with kids and an on-going impact."
After a bad knee forced him to consider an off-court career path in 1997, the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., resident began volunteering and introducing tennis at a local Boys and Girls Club. Then he realized these children needed much more.
At the time, the Mal Washington Foundation already existed, initially serving as a grant-making organization. In 1997, Washington wanted to make a more direct impact in the community, so he hired a friend who used to be the tournament director at the AT&T Challenge in Atlanta to implement the program in the Jacksonville, Fla., area.
The Malivai Washington Kids Foundation partnered with the Boys and Girls Club and evolved into a Monday-through-Friday after-school program for children in first through sixth grades with innovative programs such as the Tennis and Tutoring (TnT).
"It has just grown exponentially since then - from what was once a 100-percent tennis program to now 40-percent tennis program and 60-percent homework assistance, life skills, mentoring program trying to get kids to understand the importance of education," said Washington. "Our mission has changed considerably over the last 10 years. I think the biggest indication of the success of the program is we continue to have kids come back and want to stay in the program year after year."
The foundation is currently nearing the tail-end of a $3 million campaign to build a Youth Tennis and Education Complex, a 9,200-square-foot facility which will include an academic building and a nine-court tennis facility in Durkeeville, one of the most economically challenged areas in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Mal Washington Foundation currently aids around 1,000 youngsters every year, but it expects that number to more than double when the new facility opens at the end of 2007.
For Washington, who has been honored with the Boys and Girls Club CARE Award (1997) and the Arthur Ashe Athletic Association Leadership Award (1998), it isn't enough for his name to be attached. His personal role in community is evident. He visits the foundation as often as possible, taking time to get to know each child and offer his own encouragement.
It's a long way from Durkeeville to Wimbledon, but Washington is making sure more and more kids have a road map of opportunities to make the journey.