Washington rallies past Martin Becomes first black in men's final since '75

July 07, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -- MaliVai Washington sat in his chair beside the umpire on Centre Court yesterday and thought about agony and ecstasy. He thought about how this Wimbledon semifinal was the biggest match of his life and the biggest match of his opponent's life, too.

One of them, he knew, would feel the joy, the other the pain. Who knew they would both get a taste of each?

No. 13 seed Todd Martin, the last seeded men's player at Wimbledon, bowed out in excruciating fashion yesterday, as Washington overcame a 5-1 deficit in the fifth set to become the first black to reach the Wimbledon men's final in 21 years. He did it with a 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, 10-8 victory.

Martin and Washington took almost as long to play their fifth set as it did for Richard Krajicek to defeat Jason Stoltenberg in the other men's semifinal, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1.

Those two victories mean Wimbledon will have its first final between two unseeded players. And whoever wins today's match will join 1985 champion Boris Becker as the only unseeded champions at Wimbledon.

"This is a moment you dream about," Washington said about his trip to Centre Court today. "I appreciate the heck out of it. I mean, you know, you do something like this and every kid from 5 years old, and even guys 50 years old, have dreamt of being at this moment."

Well, some little kids anyway, but maybe not so many little kids like Washington, an African-American, who chose Arthur Ashe, the 1975 Wimbledon champion and the last black man to make the final, as a role model instead of a pro basketball or football star.

As Washington sat enjoying his amazing victory, everyone wanted to know how he felt about being the first black man since Ashe to make the final.

Everyone except perhaps Martin, who is Washington's new neighbor in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

"I think making the finals for Mal has to be a great feeling, whether he's black, white, brown or green," said Martin. "I think he's done a great job of playing tennis and I don't think anybody should let the color of his skin overshadow what he's done on the tennis court. The fact that it is the first time since Arthur did well here is going to be great for Mal, because it will be something that the whole black community can cherish and I think that's exciting."

And Washington was nice about it.

"It's great when you can win, because you're winning for yourself and you're winning for your family, and you're kind of winning for those who are pulling for you," he said. "It's an honor to be the first black since Arthur to be in the slam final."

He doesn't remember watching Ashe defeat defending champ Jimmy Connors in 1975. He was about 6 at the time, but he's seen film of match point. "A little high forehand volley winner," Washington said.

And he understands the interest. He and Bryan Shelton are the only two black Americans on the Association of Tennis Professionals tour.

"I don't like to use the word 'burden'," Washington said the other day, even before he got to this final. "But I suppose there's a certain pressure on you. And the more success I have, the more pressure. When I hovered around 15th in the rankings in 1992 and '93, the pressure was pretty good. Then I slipped. Now [that] I'm back in the Top 20 I get more questions, more comparisons with Arthur. Heck, it's a great compliment to be mentioned in the same sentence as Arthur."

Washington fought back from two sets down to force a fifth set Friday and then had to wait until yesterday morning to play it. And when it started, it appeared the prize of going to the final would go to Martin, who started by winning 12 of the first 13 points. He was up 3-0 and by the sixth game was in position to serve for the set.

But Martin couldn't close it out.

"I have no regrets," said Martin, who couldn't have been more gracious. "I think I did everything that I could. I obviously froze up a little bit and Mal played well when he needed to."

For Martin, it was the most incredible crumble of his life.

"When you're in that situation, you get mad at yourself, you laugh at yourself, you experience the gamut of emotions," he said. "I've never felt a feeling like today. That's why I play, I mean, to try to overcome something like that, because if I had won the match it would have been the greatest feeling I've had in the game."

Pub Date: 7/07/96

Today's title match

Finalists: Unseeded MaliVai Washington, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., ranked 20th, vs. unseeded Richard Krajicek, Netherlands, ranked 13th.

Time: 9 a.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

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