As a tennis player, MaliVai "Mal" Washington's greatest strength was that he had no significant weaknesses. His game had a versatile quality, an ability to constantly adjust to various opponents, playing styles and conditions. Coupled with an unflappable nature, it took him far, to a career-high ranking of No. 11 in the world, four ATP singles titles and more than $3.2 million in prize money.
Unquestionably, the most notable moment of Washington's decadelong career came in a brisk two weeks in the summer of 1996. Entering Wimbledon that year ranked 20th in the world, Washington became the first African-American man since Arthur Ashe 21 years earlier to reach a Grand Slam singles final. In the semis, Washington made one of the most incredible comebacks in contemporary tennis history, rallying from 5-1 down in the fifth to beat a man he'd known since his junior days in Michigan, Todd Martin.
Looking back on it all now at the age of 40, Washington said, "Ultimately in tennis, you want that elusive major -- and I was in the finals of the biggest one of them all." His opponent that day was a man in the zone: tall, big-serving Dutchman Richard Krajicek. "I had 13 great days at Wimbledon that year," Washington said, "but Richard had 14." Krajicek won that match in straight sets.
As Washington reflects on his closest chance to capturing a major, he is thoughtful, engaged, as even-keeled as he was on the court. That was then, this is now. And this is something perhaps even more important. By the end of 2010, Mal Washington will be a college graduate.
At 18, he'd been a scholarship athlete at the University of Michigan. But, Washington said, "College for me then was a means of getting to the pro tour, which meant I was excessively focused on tennis. And I didn't take advantage of all that was offered by the University of Michigan."
He's now studying finance at the University of North Florida, not too far from his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, a Jacksonville suburb. Juggling course work and a real estate career while spending time with his wife and two children, Washington sees things quite differently than he did 20 years ago. Said Washington, "At Michigan I would come in late, doze off, leave early for any odd reason. Now I'm dug in. I see that in school there are a lot of opportunities out there if you're willing to take them seriously and make the effort to succeed."
Washington also devotes himself to the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation, a nonprofit based in Jacksonville's rough-and-tumble 32209 zip code. Dropouts, teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse -- this neighborhood has it all. It also has, thanks to the efforts of Washington and his colleagues, a 9,000-square-foot youth center, eight tennis courts and a program that combines tennis and education.
Over the course of the past decade, Washington estimates more than 20,000 children have been affected by the program. Said Washington, "We use tennis as a platform for their education, their conduct, being responsible." Thanks to Washington's efforts, children have had the chance to hit with the likes of Venus Williams, speak with Bill Cosby and attend everything from musical events to football games.
"A lot of kids will be the first in their family not just to go to college, but also the first to graduate high school," Washington said. "Think of that: to graduate high school. We're trying to stop the cycle of what they see in their community -- and then they can put their family on a completely different track."
And with that, Washington strapped on his backpack. He had a class to attend in 15 minutes. And this time there was absolutely no chance he'd be late.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.