If MaliVai Washington can learn how to win a five-set match, then surely we can learn how to pronounce his name. Until now, Washington has been better known for his agonizing five-set losses in Grand Slam tournaments, and for his unusual moniker, than for his victories. However, in view of his performance through the first four rounds of the Australian Open...well, we had best learn how to say it.
The name is pronounced Mal-uh-VEE-ya, and on Monday in Melbourne, Washington, a 24-year-old from Swartz Creek, Mich., reached the first Grand Slam quarterfinal of his career. He broomed through the bottom half of the men's draw, upsetting second-seeded Michael Stich in the opening round and surviving five, count 'em, five sets with Mats Wilander in the round of 16.
Five times Washington had lost heartbreaking five-set matches to seeded players in major championships, and it seemed he would never claw his way past the early rounds. Following a particularly bitter fourth-round loss to Michael Chang at the 1992 U.S. Open, he was asked what he had to do to win a five-setter. Washington desperately joked, "I don't know, maybe I should grab a gun and shoot the guy."
That wasn't necessary against Stich, to whom he had dropped a five-setter in the first round of the '91 Australian Open. Seven months later, after Stich had won Wimbledon in July, Washington lost another five-setter to Stich, this time in the third round of the U.S. Open. Last week Washington beat Stich, the tour's hottest player in recent months, 7-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
January 31, 1994
Washington then won a five-set battle with 40th-ranked Andrei Cherkasov and beat No. 93 Alex Antonitsch in four sets. That brought him to the 29-year-old Wilander, who, although ranked 322nd, was no slouch. The former No. 1 and winner of seven Grand Slam titles has regenerated his career after nearly a two-year absence from the circuit. Washington had lost two tiebreakers in the first three sets when he hit a magical lob that seemed to disappear briefly into the night. It helped secure the fourth set. Wilander never recovered, winning only one more game, and Washington prevailed 6-7, 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 6-1. "I still don't feel good about five-setters," said Washington afterward. "But when you win them, you feel great."
Washington, whose first name is still mispronounced by chair umpires, is accustomed to long, hard fights for recognition. At 18 he was the No. 4 junior player in the country, behind David Wheaton, Jim Courier and Chang (Pete Sampras was No. 6), but was not invited to join the U.S. Tennis Association's national team for the development of top young players. After gaining the No. 1 collegiate ranking as a sophomore at Michigan, he turned pro in the fall of 1989. He finished the year ranked only 199th and by the end of 1990 had barely cracked the top 100.
By 1992, however, the 5'11", 175-pound Washington had attained a career-high ranking of No. 11 and become the first African-American male since Arthur Ashe in 1979 to finish a year in the Top 20. His game may not be spectacular, but it is solid in every respect and allows him, unlike many other players these days, to be effective on any surface. Indeed, he has reached at least the semifinals of tournaments on all surfaces (clay, hard, grass and indoor carpet). Still, triumphs over the premier players have been few and far between. Last year he was 1-8 against Top 10 players, which helps explain why his ranking has slipped to No. 26.
Perhaps the win over Stich and the two five-set victories are a sign that Washington is ready to join the game's elite. "The previous losses taught me something," said Washington after the Wilander match. "That's what got me through it. It feels great to finally be able to grind it out."