Washington, MaliVai 1969–
MaliVai Washington 1969–
Professional tennis player
Turning Pro With High Ambition
MaliVai Washington is a world-class professional tennis player and an up-and-coming star in a sport traditionally dominated by whites. Described as “reserved and well-spoken” by a Tennis magazine interviewer, Washington has competed on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour since 1989. He has also appeared in professional tennis’ four major tournaments, known as Grand Slam events: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. Washington won his first two professional tournaments in 1992, and has performed well against the world’s top players. A Dollars & Sense magazine contributor cites the player for his “stamina, coordination, and sharp reflexes” as well as his “strong sense of character both on and off the court.”
MaliVai Washington has credited his father’s love of tennis with keeping him interested in the game throughout his early life. Even in his professional career, he has retained his father as one of his coaches. Washington told the Detroit Free Press of his father: “He knows when I’m hitting the ball well and when I’m not. He’ll always be my coach. He’s always going to give me his input.” Two other Washington siblings, Mashiska and Mashona, are highly ranked junior players, both coached by their father.
Washington’s parents, William and Christine Washington, were both from rural Mississippi; well-educated and religious people, they instilled a strong work ethic in their five children. That mode of conduct carried over to the sport William introduced to his children. While employed as the assistant dean at the State University of New York (SUNY) in New York City, William noticed the school’s new tennis courts and decided it would be a good idea to use them for a tennis clinic for poor city kids. When he couldn’t find anyone to coach the clinic, he taught himself how to play tennis. William’s interest in the sport persisted as the family moved to several different states. Eventually settling in southeastern Michigan, he found employment with General Motors’ corporate training department. He also found time to coach his children in the fundamentals of tennis.
When it became apparent that MaliVai and his older sister, Michaela, were talented in the game, no expense was spared for serious coaching. William enjoyed seeing the family, which he calls “team Washington,” practice tennis together. “This teaches us competitiveness, it teaches us
At a Glance…
First name is pronounced Ma-la-VEE-yah; born June 20, 1969, in Glen Cove, NY; son of William (a General Motors executive) and Christine Washington. Education: Attended University of Michigan, 1987-89. Religion: Baptist.
Professional tennis player, 1989—. Winner of the Federal Express International and the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships, both 1992. Member of U.S. Davis Cup team, 1993-94.
Addresses: Home —Swartz Creek, Ml, and Ponte Vedra, FL
sharing, it teaches us togetherness,” he once told Detroit Free Press reporter. “It’s more than just hitting a ball across the net.” For her part, Michaela played so well that she set a standard for her younger siblings, turning professional at age 19. She was retired a few years later, however, due to injuries.
MaliVai has made it clear that his parents didn’t force him to become a professional tennis player. He stated in the Detroit Free Press: “My parents said whatever you want to do, if you want to play tennis or do something else, we’ll do our damnedest to help you. But once you decide, don’t six months later say, ‘Oh, I’ve had enough of that.’” MaliVai also recalled that when he was 12 or 14, he would get tired of tennis and want to do other things. But as he admitted in Tennis, “the thing that kept me going was the idea that there was always a tournament coming up…. I just loved the sheer competition of it.”
Education was also important in the close-knit Washington family. MaliVai attended the University of Michigan for two years before turning pro. He entered Michigan on a full tennis scholarship in the fall of 1987. His freshman year, he helped the Wolverine tennis team win the 1988 Volvo Collegiate Championships, and he was named the Big Ten freshman of the year. The following year, Washington was ranked the number one college tennis player in the nation by Tennis magazine, as he again led Michigan to the national tennis championship. In his two-year college career, he compiled a 48-10 singles record and won two of the three major college tennis tournaments.
Turning Pro With High Ambition
Washington joined the professional ranks in 1989, and joined the ATP tour in 1990. He played well enough, including a two-set conquest of formidable veteran Ivan Lendl, to be named the ATP Tour rookie of the year by Tennis magazine. Washington ranked 93rd in the world at the end of the 1990 season, according to the international computerized tennis ranking system. A Jet writer called Washington “the fastest rising player in the international computer rankings.” Washington declared his intention to reach the top 30, a goal he achieved in 1992.
The year prior to that accomplishment, Washington played in all four of the major tournaments and began to establish himself as “one of those dangerous players nobody wants to face in the early rounds,” a Detroit Free Press article claimed. In 1991’s first major—the Australian Open—Washington lost a dramatic five-set match to Michael Stich after being up by two sets. Next Washington gave a strong showing in February’s U.S. Pro Indoors Championship, defeating one of the game’s respected elder statesmen, Patrick McEnroe, in the third round, and losing a close match to fellow young lion Pete Sampras in the fourth round, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7).
That presentation was followed by an appearance in the semifinals of the Volvo of Chicago tournament, where Washington lost to John McEnroe. Though disappointed, Washington was consoled by the upset he pulled when he dumped the number three seed, Petr Korda, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) before facing McEnroe. The Detroit Free Press attributed that win to Washington’s “booming serve and steady ground game.” Despite continuing to play well, Washington lost a first-round match in five sets to French tennis star Guy Forget in the year’s second major, the French Open. At Wimbledon, still later in the year, Washington lost another five-set match, this time to Ivan Lendl. But by the time Washington entered the U.S. Open in August of 1991, he had improved his ranking to 57.
Washington advanced to the third round in the U.S. Open, before meeting his nemesis, Michael Stich, who had just won at Wimbledon. The third-seeded Stich again defeated Washington in five sets, but Washington didn’t take it as a setback. “It’s not discouraging; it’s encouraging,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “It gives you a measure of where your game is and where you have to be if you want to beat those players.”
Succeeded in 1992
Washington won his first professional tournament in February of 1992, by defeating Wayne Ferreira in the finals of the Federal Express International, held in Memphis, Tennessee. He’d also won big over old pro Jimmy Connors and relatively new one, Michael Chang, during the tournament. That victory came on the heels of strong showings in the New Zealand Open—where Washington reached the finals for the first time in his professional career—and in the Australian Open, where he advanced to the third round before losing to his opponent, Wally Masur.
The victory at Memphis raised Washington’s international ranking to 26, and by the end of the year he would be ranked 13. In May of 1992, he won his second professional tournament, the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships at Charlotte, North Carolina. He also competed in the French Open, where he lost a second round match to the experienced Aaron Krickstein in five sets. Washington was eliminated from Wimbledon in an early round match. Overall, Washington was playing well enough to improve his international ranking and to be seeded in the ATP tour events, but it was not until the 1992 U.S. Open that he was seeded—14th—in a major tournament. He reached the fourth round before losing to Michael Chang in five sets of that U.S. Open.
Following his best year of professional tennis, Washington briefly achieved his highest international ranking as the 11th best tennis player in the world. He began the year confident that he would do even better in 1993. He expressed that belief in the Detroit Free Press, saying “I’m hoping to continue what I’ve been doing. I work hard. It took me a long time to win my first tournament. I think I will break it [16th round of a Grand Slam event] this year. It’s a matter of time.”
Washington had gained 13th-in-the-world status by the time the Australian Open of 1993 had come around. That January, he lost a fourth round match to Pete Sampras, who was ranked third at that time. While Sampras would shortly ascertain the number one slot with victories in Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that year, Washington would struggle throughout the period and see his ranking slip below his coveted “in the top 30” position. He faced Sampras again in the March finals of the Lipton Tournament, then lost to him again in the French Open’s 16th round. At Wimbledon, Washington was seeded 14th and lost a second round match to Aaron Krickstein.
A Davis Cup Team Member
In the midst of all that action, Washington was selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team—the highlight of a difficult year. His teammates included Andre Agassi, Patrick McEnroe, and Richey Reneberg, contributing to the overwhelming amount of collective talent at the Davis Cup—an international tennis competition conducted between teams from various nations. In defeating the team from the Bahamas to qualify for the 16-team field competing for the 1994 Davis Cup, Washington won both of his two singles matches, the first against Bahamas’ Mark Knowles, who withdrew with severe cramps, and the second in two straight sets against Knowles’s teammate, Roger Smith.
At the time of his Davis Cup debut, Washington was ranked 29th in the world, but he entered the 1994 Australian Open as an unseeded player. In the first round he scored a stunning upset victory over second-seeded Michael Stich in four sets. The overthrow was especially sweet since Washington had squandered a two-set lead in losing a five-set match to Stich in the 1991 Australian Open. Washington had hit his stride; he proceeded to steamroll his successive challengers, leaving Andrei Cherkasov, Alex Antonitsch, and Mats Wilander in his wake. In so doing, Washington arrived in the quarterfinal round of eight.
Washington met Todd Martin, whom Tennis magazine had featured as the most improved player of 1993 in that quarterfinal competition. Volleying in 98-degree heat with gusting winds, Martin mastered the adverse conditions and defeated Washington in three sets: 6-2, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5). Washington expressed disappointment in being eliminated from what had been a very successful tourney for him. “I think the whole match was a shocker. My serve just wasn’t working,” he concluded in the Detroit News. “The heat and wind affected both of us. He just handled the conditions better than I did.”
Fitness and Consistency
In a game demanding excellent technique and form, Washington’s father—having taught MaliVai the basics of tennis—has immensely contributed to his son’s winning ways. Credit also goes to Brian Gottried, MaliVai’s tennis coach since 1990. A former tennis pro who became part of the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) coaching team, Gottfried has trained the younger Washington in honing his methods. Gottfried has also instructed Washington on tactics, including developing different shot options from different positions on the court.
Concerned with all aspects of his athletic career, Washington also began working with Australian fitness coach Gavin Hopper in 1993. Fitness has always been a key element in Washington’s tennis success. He’s known on the court for his leg strength and speed, so his work with Hopper has focused on improving his upper-body strength. Hopper explained for a Tennis article, “[Washington] needs to build up the strength and endurance around his joints, because he’s so powerful that there is stress on his joints with every move he makes.” Striving for thoroughness, Washington works out with free weights and does some road work, too. “On a typical day I might work for two hours in the morning and two-and-a-half hours in the afternoon, including court time,” he informed Tennis readers. After that comes roadwork at the end of the day.
Consistency is the another important factor for Washington. He assessed himself in a Tennis magazine story: “I had some peaks and valleys when I first came on the tour. But in 1992, I levelled out.” Nonetheless, winning two professional tournaments and performing well against top-seeded players in other major competitions is a plateau with which one could easily be satisfied.
Washington will continue to pursue his latest goal of being ranked among the top ten tennis players in the world. He expects to maintain his position in the international rankings by doing well on the regular ATP tour events. To reach the top five or ten, though, he realizes he must do well in the big events: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. From such a position—with the eyes of the world upon him—Washington can have the most influence as a role model for black youngsters who might be lured onto America’s tennis courts. Asked what advice he might give to such young people, Washington told Dollars & Sense: “You can’t control your future, but you can greatly influence it. Use your brain now and do the right thing, and you will never look back with regret.”
Detroit Free Press, June 24, 1991, p. 1-D; June 25, 1991, p. 3-D; August 22, 1991, p. 1-F; August 31, 1991, p. 1-B; February 17, 1992, p. 2-D; May 11, 1992, p. 2-D; September 24, 1993, p. 1-F.
Detroit News, January 26, 1994, p. 1-F.
Jet, January 14, 1991, p. 48; April 15, 1991, p. 46.
Sports Illustrated, November 21, 1988, p. 95.
Tennis, September 1989, p. 167; December 1990, p. 47; December 1991, p. 48; December 1992, p. 74; October 1993, p. 46.
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