Retired American MaliVai Washington returns to competitive tennis at the Gibson Guitar Champions Cup. Since retiring in 1999, he has devoted some time to his MaliVai Kid’s Foundation, which will hold its 11th annual fundraising gala this September. Below he talks about joining the Masters tour, his appearance in the 1996 Wimbledon final, and the Davis Cup injury that ended his professional career.
Q: How do you feel about making your Outback Champions Series debut?
MaliVai Washington: Making my debut in the Outback Champions Series will be exciting. It’s a chance to get back out on the court having been away from competitive tennis for several years. The funny thing is that the draw will look just like it did when I was on tour full time. These are the guys I won and lost against my entire career.
Q: You had knee problems at the end of your career stemming from a heroic 1997 (first round) Davis Cup win in Brazil against Gustavo Kuerten. Tell us about that match, what happened to your knee, and how your knee feels now.
MW: Playing Davis Cup for me was always a great honor. Unfortunately, I played just three times in my career. There were a few Hall of Famers named Sampras, Courier, Agassi, and Chang, who where going to be asked to play ahead of me so it wasn’t often that I got the chance to play.
Beating Gustavo in the opening match was one of my top three or four career highlights. A combination of the occasion, being in Brazil in front of a pretty hostile crowd, and playing the opening match, was very special. Finishing the match with a knee injury where I had sheared off a piece of cartilage made it more painful but more satisfying.
Ironically, that was a career highlight but it was also the beginning of the end of my career. I just didn’t know it at the time. Today, my knee feels ok, but I doubt if it will ever be 100 percent. Just the nature of my injury hasn’t allowed me to play as much tennis over the last few years as I’d like and I certainly haven’t competed against guys like this in years so I too am interested to see how my body holds up.
Q: It has been nine years since you retired from the ATP tour. How will it feel to play matches again?
MW: Playing competitive tennis is such an adrenaline rush for me so it will be great to get on the court and compete. I just wish I could do some of the things I use to do on the court well. I can still do those things today, I just can’t do it as often.
Q: You had two great grasscourt achievements in your career: coming back from 1-5 in the fifth to beat Todd Martin in the semis of Wimbledon in ’96 and playing Richard Krajicek in the final. What are your memories of those matches?
MW: At the time, I would have never guessed that (those matches) would be my last ever at Wimbledon; knee injuries and surgeries didn’t allow me to play again. Coming back from 1-5 down in the fifth set against Todd was one of those things you can’t explain. In the course of a year, every player loses a couple matches that they should have probably won, and on the flip side, win a couple matches (they) probably should have lost. The win against Todd was won of those matches. For me it was a great highlight and win against a great player.
Being in the final of a major championship is what you dream about as a kid, but you never dream of getting second place. On that day, the better player won, but those two weeks in London and playing on the final day was the pinnacle of my career.
Q: What are your feelings of Newport and the International Tennis Hall of Fame as a destination?
MW: Newport is such a wonderful city to visit and the Hall of Fame is such a nice venue to have an event. My last trip to Newport was in the summer of 2006 for the Gullikson charity event… I have special memories of the Newport because Mark Stenning, the Newport Tournament Director, gave me my first wild card back in 1989 before I had even turned pro, and he again gave me a wild card into the tournament 10 years later when I was at the end of my career, post-two knee surgeries. Needless to say Newport was very special to my career.
Details: The Gibson Guitar Champions Cup, part of the Champions Tennis Series, will be held August 22-26, 2007 at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. Featured players in the round-robin tournament include John McEnroe, Pat Cash, Mats Wilander, Wayne Ferreira, Jim Courier, Richard Krajicek, Todd Martin, and Mal Washington. For more information, visit www.tennisfame.com