by | Jul 8, 1996 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — When the crowd began to holler his name, and the referee urged him to acknowledge the cheers, MaliVai Washington reluctantly raised his silver runner-up plate and got to his feet — as a tennis player. Not a black tennis player. Not a racial symbol. A tennis player. He had given the hallowed grass of Wimbledon a tremendous show these last two weeks, coming from the unseeded shadows to defeat six consecutive opponents, overcoming big serves and big pressure, whizzing shots that would make a ghost applaud. Now, on Centre Court, a place he had never played on until this weekend, they were roaring his name. One Brit yelled, “We love you, Mal!”

He smiled and gave a salute. Although the championship was lost, at 27 — old for his sport — Washington had achieved at least one of his dreams: On the last day of a Grand Slam event, he was being cheered — not for his skin color but for his game.

Long time coming.

“I could get used to this,” Washington said in the tunnel afterward, despite dropping the rain-delayed final to missile- launching Dutchman Richard Krajicek, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, ending a spectacular run from the unseeded pack to the brink of the greatest title in tennis. “All these years, I always believed this day was coming. I never gave up.”

That took a lot of belief. How far was this from the public courts in Flint, where he first learned to handle a racket? How far was this from those endless weekends with his father, a GM worker and his only coach, pounding yellow balls into yellow lint? Back in the United States, they made a lot of this match because Washington is black, the first black man to get this far since Arthur Ashe won in 1975. But let’s be clear about something: Washington was not here because of his color. He didn’t get some kind of affirmative-action boost to the final. Had he pulled off a victory — and with his turbocharged style of play, you were never sure until the final point that he wouldn’t — there would have been a media dam burst, not quite Jackie Robinson but close to it. “First Black Man to Win Wimbledon in 21 Years!” the headlines would have read.

And Washington would have been uncomfortable because he does not see himself in terms of color.

And neither should we.

Family values

Did you see some of the shots he made here — two-fisted backhands that streaked like F16s, balls at his ankles that he lifted and fired in a single blurring motion? He went five sets and three tiebreaks to win the quarterfinals; he went five sets, two days, and one incredible comeback to win the semifinals; and he went toe-to-toe with Krajicek, whose blazing serve had already knocked off the three-time defending champion, Pete Sampras.

“Whether he’s black, white, brown or green, Mal has done a great job of playing tennis here,” said Todd Martin, his victim in the semis. “Nobody should let the color of his skin overshadow what he’s done on the court.”

Precisely. You want to know how Washington made the Wimbledon final? Not race. Family. He was taught by his father, William, who picked up a racket when he was 33 and began banging balls off a wall. Soon the entire crew was playing together — Mal, his younger brother, Mashiska, his sisters, his dad. They were there for each other coming up, and they are there for each other today. William could not be here at Wimbledon because his daughter was playing a tournament in Mississippi. Family rule. One member accompanies another. So Mashiska stayed with Mal at the St. James hotel, and they ordered pizza and watched videos and kept each other company for two weeks.

“We never go anywhere without some member of the family for support,” Mashiska explained. “Next week, someone will go with me when I play.”

You want to know how Washington made the Wimbledon final? Not race. Perseverance. Hailed as a budding superstar coming out of college, he went through a peak, then a valley. After reaching a career-high No. 11 ranking, Mal won just two minor titles over the last four years, and his last two trips to Wimbledon were first-round exits.

Perseverance. This year he came in determined to adjust his mental attitude. “Before it was always, uh-oh, I’m here again, what’s going to go wrong this time?” he said. “This year, I just wanted to focus on the positive. And it worked.”

You want to know how Washington made the Wimbledon final? Not race. Skill and courage. In the semis, he was down, 1-5, in the final set. He never stopped trying big-gamble passing shots and rocket backhands to the shadow of the line. Those shots unnerved Martin, and Washington came back to tie the set and eventually win the match. His speed and powerful ground strokes kept him in games all tournament long. “Dazzling,” the British press called him.

Family. Skill. Perseverance. Courage. You want to know how he got to the Wimbledon final? That’s how.

Nothing black or white about it.

A role model for all

“It seems like wherever I go, people want to ask how I made it as a black player, or why there aren’t more black players,” Washington told me. We were sitting below the main stadium, after he’d made the semifinals. All week long he had been asked about being black, and all week long he shrugged off the questions.

“I’m proud, don’t get me wrong. And if other young black players are inspired by me, that’s great. But I’d like to get to the day where it’s not an issue at all.”

That day should be here. Players should be players. On Sunday, Krajicek became the first Dutchman to win a Grand Slam. When someone pointed this out, the new champion smiled and said, “That is a fact.” Then he went to the next question.

Mal Washington played some wonderful, gritty, never-give-up tennis these past two weeks, and if there are kids out there picking up a racket because of what they saw, it should be because of that, and those kids should be black and white and brown and yellow. He is a role model for excellence — and for grace under pressure.

When Washington’s post-match interview session was done, the Wimbledon official sitting next to him did something I’d never seen before. He leaned into the microphone — normally these guys never speak — and said, “If it’s not too much to ask, ladies and gentlemen, although he didn’t win the tournament, Mr. Washington provided us with some marvelous tennis, and I wonder if we could express our appreciation in a usual manner?”

And he began to clap.

And a room full of reporters put down their pads and clapped along.

It was for tennis, not for anything else, and Washington smiled because that is all he ever asked.


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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.

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