by | Jul 5, 1996 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — The rain fell, the rain stopped, the rain fell again. The tarp went on, the tarp came off, the tarp went on again. When it was finally done, this wash cycle of a day, a late sun emerged from behind the British clouds, and brought with it a new rainbow era at Wimbledon; the defending champion was gone, the final four included a black man for the first time in 21 years, and no matter what happens next, someone from Michigan, for the first time ever, will play for the most coveted crown in the tennis world.

Now that’s a rainstorm.

“How did you pass the time during all those rain delays?” someone asked MaliVai Washington, who, along with Todd Martin, advanced to an all-Michigan semifinals with a marathon five-set win that began after breakfast, ended during dinner, and had three and a half hours of tennis and four hours of cloudburst.

“What did I do? You name it,” Washington said. “I stretched, I talked, I went down and watched some TV in the locker room. They had on WWF wrestling.”


“Yeah, a couple of 300-pound guys were going at it. And then a lady jumped in.”

The WWF? AT Wimbledon? Well, it was the Fourth of July. And two Americans
— namely, Martin and Washington — declared their independence. These mid-career players – Martin, from Lansing, is 26, Washington, from Swartz Creek, is 27 — are no longer longshots at this most prestigious event. They are no longer cannon fodder for the more famous names. In this weird and wet Wimbledon, they have outlasted all the marquee players, Agassi, Becker, Chang, Ivanisevic, Stich, Kafelnikov, and yes, the reigning king, Pete Sampras, who went down in a puddle Thursday.

Now they face each other.

“You’ve come a long way across the world just to play another guy from Michigan,” someone said to Washington.

“Yeah. But I couldn’t be happier. Todd and I know each other well; we’ve been warming each other up here all week.
“Besides, it’s more than just Wimbledon, now. We’ve got some bragging rights in Michigan on the line here.”

Somebody call the governor’s office.

Martin beats the Brit

What each of these men did Thursday merits a chapter in itself. Martin was facing the guy nobody wanted to play this week — Tim Henman, a cheeky, 21-year-old Brit who had sent this country into a tizzy because, for the first time since the early 70’s, it actually had a male player who could do more than lose gracefully. Henman has a mean serve, a strong game, and a bit of a chip on his shoulder. In reaching the quarterfinals he had gone from unknown to national hero, and the crowd promised to be as anti-Martin as a crowd can be, considering that Martin never does anything a Boy Scout wouldn’t do.

“Hey, I was thrilled when they didn’t cheer my first double- fault,” Martin said. But then, he didn’t give them much chance. After waiting all day Wednesday to play Henman, only to be rained off the court altogether, Martin came out Thursday morning at 11 a.m. determined to get this thing over. He never lost his serve, pushed the first set to a tie break — tennis overtime
— and won it, 7-5, when Henman felt the pressure and double-faulted.

Pause here for a rainstorm and some British fans doing a conga line dance to pass the time.

OK. We’re back. The second set continued, Martin again held serve, pushed it to another tie-break, then blasted ahead, winning on an ace that left Henman chewing on his overbite.

Pause here for another rainstorm, and some British fans singing a soccer song.

Pause here for another rainstorm, and some British fans doing the Wave.

In fact, more than four hours — and some really bad sing-a- longs — passed from the last point of the second set to the last point of the third. Thankfully, Martin got to spend it indoors. “I was in the locker room, like everyone else, hanging out, watching TV, trying to guess how much I should eat.”

“Did you see Henman in there as well?”

“It’s kind of hard not to. The room is like 50 foot square. I walked by him a few times and tried to elbow him, but I missed.”

He was joking, folks.

But he wasn’t when he came back out. The third set didn’t go to overtime. What, and be here all week? Forget it. Martin broke Henman in the fifth game, and a few minutes later, watched England’s last hope fizzle away as his forehand went long. The two men jogged to the net. The crowd applauded politely.

Todd Martin, out of Lansing and the Big Ten, had taken on a player, a country, and a small flood, and had beaten back all three. He was going to the semifinals.

Game, set, Michigan. Washington’s marathon

A story that good could only be equaled by one that was remarkable. Enter Washington, the guy from Swartz Creek, son of a GM worker, who had never gone beyond the second round at Wimbledon before this week. Unlike Martin’s Centre Court battle, Washington’s road to the semis took place on the all- but-forgotten Court One, with lots of empty seats at 11 a.m. Never mind. Washington and his opponent, Andrew Radulescu, a surprising Romanian/German with a powerhouse serve, gave this tournament one of its best matches, and did everything but run an Olympic marathon before it ended.

Their first set went to a tie-break. The Romanian won.

Their second set went to a tie-break. Washington won.

Their third set nearly went to a tie-break. The Romanian won, 7-5.

Washington was on the ropes, pushed all the way to match point in the fourth, before he found the magic to finish his rain-soaked miracle. He began to move like a waterbug, slapping volleys wherever Radulescu wasn’t. His serve was strong; his backhand was a rope. The two men went to another tie-break in the fourth; Washington won it. They played a fifth set.

And finally, with the rain and the tarp and the WWF broadcasts behind him, Washington watched Radulescu double- fault to end the match — it was now after 6 p.m. — and he heard the crowd salute him with hearty applause, and he touched his forehead and saluted back.

“You dream about going for a Wimbledon title from the day you start playing tennis,” said Washington — and in his case, that was hardly typical beginning. His father, William, taught himself the game when he was 33, and then he began teaching it to his children. There were no country clubs, no tennis academies in Florida. For a black player without a lot of money, there is almost no path to follow, because there are so few who have done it before you. The Washingtons did it the family way — father, mother, two sons and three daughters banging balls until the sun went down on the courts outside of Flint.

From there to here: a date at Centre Court, a crack at the finals.

“This is huge,” Washington said. And no doubt, back in America, it’s even bigger, because Washington represents the first black male to reach a Wimbledon semi since Arthur Ashe won here in 1975. To Washington’s credit, he does not see things in terms of race.

“I’ve been known as a great black tennis player for a while now,” he said.
“It would be nice to be known as a great tennis player. When I go out there, I don’t see it as a black man playing tennis. And I don’t see my opponent as a white man playing tennis. I just see it as two men playing tennis.”

Well said. And so it shall be today. Two men playing tennis. Two men from the same state. Two men who grew up less than 50 miles from one another. Two men who have waited while the Andres and Petes dominated the headlines, and who now, thanks to Thursday’s declaration of independence, have a chance to dominate a headline or two themselves.

Game, set, Michigan. There may be more rain today — in fact, you can bet on it. But every cloud has its silver lining, just as every man has his time. The weather forecast for today? That’s easy. They’re predicting history.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!