By Joshua Rey, ITA
MaliVai Washington's professional tennis career will always be remembered for his remarkable run to the 1996 Wimbledon final. But one tournament doesn't make a man.
Before Wimbledon, Washington enjoyed two of the most dominant seasons in college tennis history as a member of the Michigan Wolverines. It's his off-court achievements, however, that have established him as one of the most respected figures in the tennis industry.
After moving to Florida, Washington founded the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation (MWKF) in 1994 -- two years before his breakthrough at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. The foundation has touched the lives of 20,000 children ever since, spawning a $3 million, 9,000-square-foot youth center in Jacksonville that features eight tennis courts, four classrooms, a computer lab, and after-school programs for students in grades 1-12.
"I have no doubt in my mind that with our programs we have literally saved lives and kept kids out of prison and away from drugs and alcohol," Washington said Tuesday during the 2011 ITA Coaches Convention, where he served as a clinician and keynote speaker courtesy of Wilson Sporting Goods.
Washington grew up in Swartz Creek, Mich., before making the transition to Ann Arbor, where champions' trophies and national awards seemed to follow him around. An ITA All-American in doubles (1988) and singles (1989), Washington swept the ITA All-American and ITA National Indoor titles as a sophomore at Michigan.
He finished the 1988-89 season as the No. 1-ranked player in the country and the ITA National College Player of the Year, accolades that led to his induction into the ITA Men's Collegiate Hall of Fame in 2007.
Though he was a natural on the court at Michigan, Washington struggled inside the classroom.
"College was not easy for me," Washington said. "Coming from a small town in Michigan, to the University of Michigan: to me it was mind boggling."
Washington turned pro after his stellar sophomore season and made a smooth transition to the ATP World Tour. In 1990, he was named the organization's Rookie of the Year.
Renowned for his versatility and composure, Washington enjoyed his greatest run at a Grand Slam on the grass courts of Wimbledon, where he faced childhood friend and Big Ten rival Todd Martin in the 1996 semifinals. Martin, who attended Northwestern University for two years, led his countryman 5-1 in the fifth set before the Wolverine rallied to take the set 10-8 and clinch a berth in the final.
"I told myself when I was down 5-1, and I've told this to countless players since: 'Make him win the match. Never lose serve to end the match,'" said Washington. "The tightest moment of a match is when you're serving for it. My whole thing was: 'Let me see if I can hold serve and see if he has the guts, the nerves, the whatever to serve it out.'"
Though he lost to Richard Krajicek in the Wimbledon final, Washington was enjoying the pinnacle of his career. As a member of Team USA at the 1996 Olympic Games, he reached the quarterfinals.
The result was good enough to earn Washington a spot on the U.S. Davis Cup team for a road tie against Brazil in February 1997. Four months before winning the first of three French Open titles, Gustavo Kuerten appeared to be the heavy favorite against Washington on red clay.
The American, however, pulled off an upset in four sets, propelling the U.S. to an early lead and, eventually, a 4-1 victory over Brazil.
Washington was rolling. But when the emotion of his win over Kuerten wore off, the pain of a left knee injury remained. After playing four more tournaments following Davis Cup, Washington underwent surgery in April 1997 -- an operation that eventually led to his retirement in 1999.
"I didn't know it," said Washington, "but that was the beginning of the end of my career. I just thought, 'Ah, it's a little knee injury, I'll do some rehab and get it back.' But that wasn't the case. For me, it was one of the more important moments in my life."
Washington says those words with mixed emotions in his voice. On three different surfaces, he'd just enjoyed three of his greatest performances as a professional, so he can't help wondering about what might have been.
In our interview Tuesday and in his life 14 years ago, he pauses...and then he perseveres.
"What I was able to do in eight months of rehab was dedicate a lot of time to the foundation," continued Washington. "When you're on crutches, you've got a lot of time to twiddle your thumbs, go to meetings and squeeze some money out of sponsors...Ultimately, the success of the foundation is because when we raise money, we do with that money what we say we're going to do. We can prove that what we're doing is working."
With the mission of developing champions in classrooms, on tennis courts and throughout communities, the MWKF is molding inner-city kids from Jacksonville into well-rounded youth. Students enrolled in a program at the MaliVai Washington Youth Center are provided with homework assistance, life skills classes and tennis lessons -- all designed to help them receive one of the many college scholarships funded by the foundation.
There's a reason why the MWKF's Tennis-n-Tutoring program has grown from 25 elementary school students at its outset to 182 today. It's not because Washington is a former pro athlete lending his name to an organization in return for good publicity. It's because the man kids call "Mr. Mal" is genuinely interested in improving children's lives in Jacksonville.
That was clear this week at the ITA Coaches Convention as Washington beamed with pride while describing Deshawn Brown. A Tallahassee Community College freshman who was in the second grade when he joined the MWKF, Brown became the first male member of his family to graduate from high school.
Then there's Marc Atkinson, who arrived at the MWKF in the sixth grade, learned to play tennis on the foundation's courts, walked onto the tennis team at Florida A&M University, and graduates from college on Friday.
Washington is making the trip across the state from Naples to Tallahassee to see Atkinson receive his diploma.
"The majority of the kids in the foundation now don't know me as a tennis player," said Washington. "Ten years after I was in the finals of Wimbledon some of these kids were born... A lot of them haven't seen me play tennis because when I go to the center -- yeah I'll spend time on the tennis court -- but I always spend just as much time in the building."
Washington works closely with students who struggle with the fears and pressures of transitioning from high school to college. He was in their shoes as a freshman at Michigan in 1987. But if anyone knows how to overcome those obstacles, it's Mr. Mal.
Seventeen years after leaving Ann Arbor, Washington enrolled at the University of North Florida in the summer of 2006 and earned his bachelor's degree in finance last December.
"I was the guy who was actually engaging the professor, sitting in the front row and not texting," said Washington. "That was the funny part about being there. I'm looking around and everyone's on their device texting. They're where I was 20 years prior: not fully engaged and just kind of there. Maybe they're on scholarship, or maybe their scholarship is their parents. But it's a great opportunity, if you realize it, to do some great things."
When Washington retired from tennis, he did so knowing that had he stayed healthy he would have won more than four titles, three million dollars and an ATP Rookie of the Year award.
Ten years later, he did. In 2009, the ATP World Tour named Washington the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year -- a fitting honor for the father of two and the mentor of so many more.
"What we give to the kids at the foundation is three-and-a-half hours after school where they're being exposed to a lot of positive things," said Washington. "It's hard to walk off our property and then do a 180 and go hang out in the street, carry a gun and start smoking. It just doesn't gel. What we're giving them in our programs carries over into their lives, at home, with their friends and in their neighborhoods. That's what motivates me, because I know we're having an impact."
To learn more about the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation, or to make a donation, please visit MalWashington.com. For additional information about the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, head over to ITAtennis.com.