Wimbledon: “I really experienced racism in and out of tennis,” says Mal Washington

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It was the first time that two unranked players had reached this final, which was also disrupted by an infamous streaker appearance just before the draw.

The match itself ended in 94 minutes, with Krajicek only needing three sets to dismiss his opponent. But the feeling of being there that day, at the dawn of history, persists for Washington.

“It’s distressing. It’s unfortunate and a little sad,” Washington told CNN Sport, reflecting on the 24-year record and it’s also been 45 years since a black American last won Wimbledon.

“I’m surprised we don’t have more Americans, period, on the men’s side, but also more black men doing at a high level.”

Washington made a forehand return to Todd Martin in their Wimbledon semi-final in July 1996.
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‘Like catching lightning in a bottle’

He says people underestimate how difficult it is for a player of any color to achieve the feat – especially in the era of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the sport’s big three. .

“It’s like catching lightning in a bottle,” Washington says. “The last American to reach a major’s final was in 2003, Andy Roddick… I mean, that shows you how difficult it is not only for people of color, but for people in general to. reach the final of a Major.

“A lot of it has to do with, you know, someone by the name of Federer and Nadal and Djokovic over the last 15 years.”

But it also has a lot to do with what he calls “the numbers game”.

“A five-year-old, 10-year-old black boy can turn on the television on Saturday or Sunday during any college or professional football season, and he can see a ton of players who look a lot like him. Guess what? his guy and that’s what he wants to be. This is not necessarily the case with tennis on the men’s side. “

The 51-year-old knows he was lucky. Like so many other professionals in the game, it was his father who introduced him to tennis at the age of five and instilled in him such a strong work ethic that he and three other siblings continued to play. professionally.

But the experience of seeing other players who looked like him succeed also had an impact, notably Frenchman Yannick Yoah, who won the French Open in 1983.

“I liked a guy like Yannick Noah… I was asked to warm up him at the US Open when I was still a junior. And I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.

“But I was worried about screwing everything up and I was worried that I had arrived on the wrong court. A few minutes before 6 pm I saw this sea of ​​people coming towards the court.

“You could see his head and those dreadlocks and hear that French accent above the crowd walking towards me. We exchanged a few words; he said,“ I heard you’re a promising young player, good luck. “It was a special moment for me.”

As a teenager, Washington was inspired by French tennis star Yannick Yoah.
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“ They didn’t allow black players at this particular club ”

It was not all special. Growing up in a massively white sport, Washington has tried not to let the color of his skin dictate what he can accomplish on court, although others do.

“I really experienced racism in tennis and outside of tennis. There were times when you played while growing up. [a] junior tournament of several age groups and you just knew – or you were told – that you weren’t going to play at that particular club. They did not allow black players at this particular club. “

But the worst examples of racism have come from discrimination in the raffle.

“You’ll see a draw, let’s say 32 players, and three of the players are black … And there were times where it was kind of weird how two of the black players faced off in the first round, then if you won, you were going to play third person black in the second round.

“And you just think … okay could it just have been the luck of the draw? But when it happens a few times it makes you think a little bit – OK, are they fixing the draw? comes out just to eliminate black players from the toss? I would say every black tennis player at some point has seen this. “

Washington created a foundation to help bring tennis to underprivileged urban children.
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“Offline”

As he progressed through the tennis ranks, Washington says he was treated with “more integrity.” Even so, the highest level of tennis was not immune to a racial insult or joke occurring here and there.

“There were some incidents that never necessarily happened with the tournament officials, but maybe someone who works for the tournament … various comments or jokes that they found quite funny which I thought about, okay, that’s completely irrelevant, “Washington says.

ATP did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Does he wish he had said something at the time? “Yes, I do,” he replies.

“There’s a part of me that wishes I had because it could’ve been an educational moment right there. But there’s also a part of me that also says, you know what? I don’t wanna go through it all. my time trying to correct what I perceive to be a racially motivated event. It is not the best use of my time. “

So Washington used its time in a very different way. After reaching the Wimbledon final – a moment that would prove to be the peak of his career – he decided to start the MaliVai Washington Foundation to help bring tennis to underprivileged urban children. He didn’t have to look far to find the right place.

“You go to this area of ​​Jacksonville, Florida, zip code 32209. You are entering this area. The last thing you expect to see is tennis. You will see a group of children on the court playing tennis, playing competitive tennis and right after. “

USTA Chairman and President Jon Vegosen, MaliVai Washington, Billie Jean King, James Blake, First Lady Michelle Obama, Serena Williams and Katrina Adams take part in the Let & # 39;  s Move!  tennis clinic during day 12 of the 2011 US Open.
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‘Difficult economic situations’

In an area notorious for drug-related crime and murder, the Foundation quickly grew into a comprehensive after-school youth development program offering tennis, homework tutoring and life skills for young people. low income. As a result, graduation rates are high, teenage pregnancies are non-existent, and crime rates low among students attending the Foundation.

“A lot of times kids come from really tough economic times,” says Washington. “But that can never be their excuse for the lack of success or the lack of education or incarceration, because the Foundation – it’s your advantage.”

The Foundation’s emphasis on tennis and education is something Washington’s predecessor Arthur Ashe would endorse.

Ashe was not only the first black man to win a grand slam – three in all – but over the course of his career he became a powerful activist for black rights, as well as social and political issues.

Washington remembers sitting next to him at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills – the original home of the US Open.

“I remember telling him I was thinking of going pro after my sophomore year… and that look kind of came to his face, like ‘I don’t know if you should be doing this.’ But I don’t think this is necessarily a reflection on me and my tennis, but rather how much he appreciated education. “

Arthur Ashe has won three Grand Slam tournaments.

At that point, neither player would know that Washington would reach the Wimbledon final in 96 ‘- and win the’ Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award ‘in 2009 for his work with the Foundation.

“I think what I’ve taken away from Arthur over the years is that as human beings and certainly as athletes who play internationally, we have a responsibility to do more than just hit a tennis ball.

“And I’m going to paraphrase here in one of his books, he said, ‘If I remember just as a tennis player, I failed. I didn’t do it, I didn’t do my job. “This line has always stuck with me and I’ve tried to live with it.”

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