MaliVai Washington: First African-American Man in 21 Years to Reach a Grand Slam Singles Final

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MaliVai Washington’s career was cut short by a knee injury. He admits that he’s thought about what his career would have been had he remained fit. Washington is remembered for his run to the Wimbledon final in 1996, where he lost to Richard Krajicek. Nonetheless, he’s grateful he had the chance to play professional tennis. Let’s reflect on his career.

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MaliVai Washington’s Early Career

MaliVai Washington was born in New York. He began playing tennis at the age of five and was the top-ranked college player. Washington attended the University of Michigan but left after his sophomore season to play professional tennis.

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Professional Career

spotcovery-MaliVai Washington (Left), Todd Martin, Mary Joe Fernandez & Tracy Austin at the 2010 US Open
MaliVai Washington (Left), Todd Martin, Mary Joe Fernandez & Tracy Austin at the 2010 US Open. Source: Wikimedia licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.0

Washington turned pro in 1989. One of his biggest wins when working his way up was defeating Ivan Lendl. After that, his breakthrough year came in 1992, in which he won the Memphis title and the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship

The following year, he got to the Miami Masters final but lost to Pete Sampras. In 1994, Washington played in his first grand slam tournament, the Australian Open, and reached the quarter-finals, beating Michael Stitch and Mats Wilander.

Washington’s ascendancy seemed unstoppable. He entered into the 1996 season on a high note after winning his third ATP title in 1994 and beating world number one Andre Agassi

That year, Washington recorded the biggest win of his career. He reached the Wimbledon final but lost to Richard Krajiceck. He was the first man since Arthur Ashe in 1975 to play in the finals. 

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Persistent Injuries

A highlight of MaliVai Washington’s career. Video Credit: Tennis Channel

After these outstanding achievements, which saw MaliVai Washington reach a career-high of world number 11, his career took a turn for the worse. In 1997, he suffered what was seemingly a minor knee injury on his left knee. He played through it during the Davis Cup final.

However, the pain limited his playing time to four tournaments, after which he took a break until 1998. Unfortunately, things got worse and MaliVai Washington’s pain limited his entire season to 10 competitions. He went for surgery and after, played in two tournaments the following year. 

In 1999, Washington made the difficult decision to retire from the sport. Speaking to CBS News at the time, he said: “Athletes want to leave the game when they think it’s time. You want to leave on your terms, not because of pain that limits your ability to play. I didn’t get that opportunity.”

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What Could Have Been

Looking back on his career, MaliVali thinks about how different things could have been had he remained fit. 

“It’s human nature to think about what if. One of the three matches that would have changed the trajectory of my career is Wimbledon. Had I won, things would be different in terms of money and profile.” he told iNews.

That said, Washington isn’t bitter about his knee injury that cut his career shot or the fact that he came up against a player who played three sets in the semis while he played five.

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‘The Next Arthur Ashe’

The Wimbledon finalist doesn’t mince his words when he says he didn’t like the term ‘The next Arthur Ashe.’ He felt like it pigeonholed him and added unnecessary pressure. Nonetheless, he understood the reasoning behind it.

“I didn’t particularly like that term, and no disrespect to Arthur. He was a great player but I wasn’t trying to be someone else. I never wanted to be the best black player on the tennis tour; I wanted to be the best player.” Washington said.

Today, Washington is a real estate developer and runs the MaliVai Washington Foundation, through which he contributes to youth development in Jacksonville, Florida. He might not be the biggest name in tennis, but his legacy lives on.

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