2020 Black History Month:
Washington's Wimbledon final run, 1996
Sally Milano | February 12, 2020
The long and storied history of tennis in the U.S. features a multitude of significant chapters authored by African-Americans. From the sport’s earliest days through its modern era, countless contributions to tennis’ growth and success have been made by players, coaches and administrators of color. Some helped tear down barriers; some have torn up record books. Several have transcended the sport they helped to build to become true American icons. All have been an inspiration, providing this sport, those who play it and those who revel in it, with myriad memorable moments.
As we celebrate Black History Month throughout February, USTA.com recalls some of the most memorable of those important moments; milestones that helped to change the face of this sport—literally and figuratively—and inspire us all to raise our game. ADVERTISEMENT Today, we look at MaliVai Washington's history-making performance at 1996 Wimbledon.
MaliVai Washington competed for 10 years on the ATP Tour, from 1989-99, reaching a career-high ranking of No. 11 in October 1992 and winning four titles. But it was over the Wimbledon fortnight in the summer of 1996 that Washington had the greatest moment of his career, when he became the first African-American man to reach a Grand Slam final since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975.
In the six consecutive appearances he made at the All England Club, Washington had never advanced past the second round. But that changed in 1996, when the 27-year-old from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., upset No. 9 seed Thomas Enqvist of Sweden, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3, to reach the Round of 32 at Wimbledon for the first time. He won his next two matches, against Bhodan Ulihrach of the Czech Republic and Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands, in straight sets, and then outlasted German Alex Radulescu, 6-7, 7-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-2, in a three-hour, 21-minute quarterfinal. Next up was an all-American semifinal against good friend and No. 13 seed Todd Martin.
Washington and Martin split the first four sets of their match, when rain suspended play and forced the fifth set to be completed the following day. When the action resumed on Centre Court, Martin jumped out to a 5-1 lead and was serving for a spot in the final. But Washington rallied, breaking Martin’s serve twice and holding on to his own to level the match at 5-all. The Americans battled for 18 games in the fifth set, before Washington won, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 10-8, in just under four hours.
“That was a match Todd probably should've won and I should've lost, but for whatever reason, things were aligned for me to win that match,” Washington told Tennis View Magazine in 2016, on the 20th anniversary of his Wimbledon run. “And I remember thinking at 5-1, specifically saying to myself, ‘Just make him play.’
"One game after another, it just kept going in my favor. And as I got to 5-2, 5-3, the crowd is getting a little more boisterous, kind of seeing this comeback. I've been in situations where I've served for the match and lost, so to some degree I'm thinking Todd is feeling the pressure. I know I'm feeling the pressure—it’s the semifinals of Wimbledon!"
The improbable comeback sent Washington into the first and only Grand Slam final of his career, which he played against Dutchman Richard Krajicek and lost, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. It was the last time the former University of Michigan All-American competed at Wimbledon, as a persistent knee injury he suffered while playing Davis Cup the following February limited his playing time and ultimately forced him to retire from the tour at the age of 30.
During Washington’s decade-long career, he had singles wins over Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang, Gustavo Kuerten and Ivan Lendl. He was a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team and played on Davis Cup teams in 1993, 1996 and 1997.
Washington founded the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1994 to introduce tennis to at-risk kids. In 1997, the foundation expanded to include after-school homework assistance and life skills programs, and in 2008, the foundation opened its doors to the MaliVai Washington Youth Center, which includes a 9,200 square-foot academic building and 11 tennis courts to serve the youth and surrounding community.
Among his many accolades, Washington received the 2009 ATP World Tour Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year Award and the 2015 USTA NJTL Founders Service Award.
To this day, he remains the last African-American man to reach a Grand Slam final.