Standing alone on the baseline of his sport’s biggest stage, returning serve against systemic racism on-and-off the court, 1996 Wimbledon finalist MaliVai Washington, knows the weight of being a high-profile athlete balancing professional responsibilities with the complex dilemma of being a role model, speaking his truth, and representing an entire group of people.
“That pressure can be immense, which is why I’m always so impressed with the great athletes and how they’re able to play under such enormous pressure,“ The 51-year-old former ATP star recently said, expressing his feelings on the difficulties of athletes balancing their game and a movement.
Social justice and the power sports continue to merge as the 2020 U.S. Tennis Open gets underway.
The public backlash stemming from the latest police-related shooting has captured the attention of the world.
When a Kenosha Wisconsin cop shot unarmed Jacob Blake, 29, in the back seven times, it once again highlighted the ills of a white law enforcement agent using questionable force against a Black person who posed no imminent deadly threat.
As people took to the streets to protest, the NBA Playoff Bubble popped as the Milwaukee Bucks spearheaded a boycott, deciding not to play their game against the Orlando Magic. The league cancelled all games to assess the situation as athletes in all major sports, including tennis, expressed their respective societal concerns in one way or another.
WTA superstar and former No. 1 player in the world, Naomi Osaka, 22, who has Black and Japanese ancestry, withdrew from her match against Elise Mertens at the Western & Southern Open in protest of the recent racial injustices. As a result, the entire tournament was put on hold for more than 24 hours.
Washington said he has watched with intrigue and admiration as Osaka and teenage sensation Coco Gauff continue to make sure professional tennis players are part of the conversation.
“One is a teenaged young woman and one is 21 or 22 years old and they are taking a public stand, front-and-center on major social issues,” Washington said, expressing pride in the maturity and actions of the 16-year-old rising star and the 10th-ranked player in the world, both of whom have been social justice warriors putting their careers and reputations on the line. “And that is not easy to do no matter how old you are.”
Washington, introspective and measured, tried to imagine himself in their position.
If I was playing would I be an outspoken person?, Washington pondered.
“I would be an outspoken person if I was on tour right now and I was 51 years old,” the Grand Slam finalist said without a hint of jest in his voice.
“If I’m 26 years old, where I’m a lot less mature, it would have been a lot more difficult for me to come out and take a stance and put my chest out there and put a target on my chest.”
But the target on Black people as a focus of societal injustice has been increasingly apparent.
A world was transfixed by the images of unarmed George Floyd begging for his life beneath the knee of a Minnesota cop earlier this year, igniting protests across the planet in the names of the most recent African-Americans killed by those sworn to protect and serve.
“Say their names” is the common refrain of those marching the streets in search of change.
Now the lens is keenly focused on tennis and the U.S. Open, where Washington remembers feeling both the positive and negatives of being a Black athlete on a big stage.
“I knew when I was playing, if I was at the U.S. Open, and I’m playing a match, there was going to be a larger contingency of Black people watching my match,” Washington said.
“And there is an additional level of pressure,” he explained. “But what I tried to learn to do is just focus on what’s going on inside the lines as much as I could.”
Formerly ranked as high as No. 11 in the world and the winner of four ATP Titles, Washington’s long journey to the top of the tennis world was not without prejudice. And he was taught how to deal with it early.
The University of Michigan alum grew up in a tennis family that included his brother Mashishka, and sisters Mashona and Micheala, all of whom played professional tennis at points in their respective careers.
His father, William, introduced his kids to tennis, often serving as their coach. And he prepared them for the realities of racial hatred they would inevitably encounter along the way.
“My dad was born in 1939 in the deep south in Mississippi,” Washington explained. “And he was keenly aware of racism and had no problem pointing it out when he encountered it, so he was the one who made me and my other siblings aware of the reality of some situations.
“I remember literally playing a tournament in the South, and oftentimes in junior tournaments there are multiple tournaments being played with multiple age groups around the city, and there were times when there were certain clubs we weren’t allowed to go to…even though the tournament was actually being played there.
“We weren’t going there because it was in the 80s and there were certain clubs that excluded black people.”
As a pro, he remembered more subtle incidents that may have been related to race as well.
“I was playing an event in South Africa and there was a panel of players, it was like a press conference and the two headliners were Andre Agassi and Boris Becker plus a few other players… and everyone got asked questions except myself.
“At the time I wasn’t a complete chump,” he said laughing at his temporary departure from humility.
“I had made the finals of Wimbledon and the people peppering us with questions were white journalists.”
Following in the footsteps of the legendary Arthur Ashe, for whom the U.S. Open Stadium Court is named, Washington took a more subtle approach to impacting race relations.
Ashe, a Black tennis pioneer, was on the forefront of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s before winning the U.S. Open in 1968. Washington said he just tried to be himself and let his game and his impeccable behavior do the talking.
The history of Black tennis players facing racism is well known. From Venus and Serena Williams boycotting the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells tournament in response to racial bigotry to Ashe walking off the court during a match against Ilie Nastase where the Romanian called the American a “Black N—-a.”
Today, Washington looks at the landscape of the sport that put him in a position to have a voice and make a difference, and for the most part likes what he sees.
He is encouraged that the governing bodies of professional tennis, from the USTA, to the ITF and ATP all seem to be making progress understanding the need for diversity and racial sensitivity in the sport, however, more work needs to be done.
“I like what they are attempting to do,” Washington said with guarded optimism, citing feelings that other sports entities might just be doing what is en vogue at the moment.
“I get a sense, not in the tennis world, but in others in recent months that I’d see a statement that they were putting out because it seemed like they felt they had to as opposed to taking the statement to heart.
“It’s not just in your words,” He suggested. “But look at your leadership …Does your leadership represent the words they are saying? And that’s a question all organizations should ask themselves.”
Washington said he supports the basic premise of the Black Lives Matter mission of exposing police brutality and injustice. He has marched along the streets of Ponte Vedra Beach Florida, and continues to have dialog about race related issues. But now he’s ready for athletes, organizations and society at-large to take the next step.
Reflecting on his career, the way he conducted himself and what he sees in tennis stars like Osaka and Gauff, Washington, more than a generation removed from his playing days, offered the advice he got from his father. Advice he believes is still helpful and valid today.
“He taught us to be proud of who we are and stand-up for what we know is right.”