MaliVai Washington

a tennis star helps our kids

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  • | 12:00 p.m. June 10, 2005
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by J. Brooks Terry

Staff Writer

MaliVai Washington enters Seven Bridges where we’ve planned to meet as if ready for battle. Confident, quiet and wearing a dark pair of sunglasses, he offers his hand.

“Mal Washington,” he says while allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkened dining room. “Nice to meet you.”

A world-class tennis player from the age of 20 until he retired a decade later, Washington traveled the world playing in tournaments including the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. In his prime he was ranked No. 11 in the world.

Quite frankly, with contemporaries that included Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, Washington was a great player during a very competitive tennis era.

But by 1999, the Michigan native was permanently sidelined after a pair of knee surgeries greatly limited his mobility on the court.

Six years later he remains fit, though surprisingly more stocky than how one might imagine a tennis player might look; think less Michael Chang and more Mike Piazza. It’s clear he’s been interviewed numerous times before, though he’s no less cordial than any other public figure afraid of being misquoted or, worse, misrepresented.

We’ve arranged our interview to discuss the latest news of The MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation, a non-profit tennis group that Washington founded in 1994 as a way to help other youth programs across the country stay afloat.

Washington openly admits that his own checkbook primarily kept the Foundation going during its first few years of operation, though by 1997 the scope of what the group did was primed to expand.

Partnering with other non-profits including the Boys and Girls Club, The Clara White Mission and others, Washington began offering a “tennis and tutoring” program, designed to sharpen reflexes on and off the court.

Today, the Foundation’s longtime goal of opening a $3 million Youth Tennis and Education Complex in Durkeeville just west of Springfield is about to become a reality. That achievement was four years in the making and Washington will delve more into it later.

But the first 20 minutes of our time together will be dedicated to finding out what else he’s been doing lately and why he chose to live and start a family in Jacksonville.

“I was 20 and I had just turned pro in 1989,” Washington says, taking a sip of his half sweet, half unsweet tea, “and I met Brian Gottfried through the Association of Tennis Pros (headquartered in Ponte Vedra Beach.) He convinced me to train here and after a while I started coming more frequently.

“It got to the point where I was coming back and staying a while after every tour.”

Washington found an apartment and eventually built a home in Ponte Vedra. He later met and married his wife Jennifer. The two now have a 2-year-old boy, Noah, and a little girl on the way.

“I love the quality of life here,” he said. “The cost of living is nice compared to other parts of the country, compared to other parts of Florida.

“And if you love water, from the ocean to the Intracoastal Waterway to the river, this is place to be.”

During the late 90s, Washington also made good on a long-time interest: real estate.

“I can remember back when I was growing up in Michigan that real estate was an interest of mine,” he said. “I grew up in a very rural town so the idea of owning thousands of acres of land was fascinating.”

After he purchased his first home, Washington began thinking more seriously about getting a real estate license.

“When we were closing on the house I remember having horrible feelings because there was so much that I didn’t understand about the process. I had a lot of questions,” he said. “You have to put all of your trust in one person and I wasn’t comfortable doing that.”

He enrolled in real estate classes in 2000 and eventually passed his final exam with relative ease. Soon after, Washington began advising friends and family about real estate investments, while continuing to invest more in local properties, himself.

Washington still spends a good part of his days researching and buying properties.

“People may be surprised to hear about my involvement with real estate, but I really am enjoying myself,” he said.

But as the Foundation continues picking up steam, keeping a balanced schedule has become a bit more tedious.

“I find myself spending more and more time in board meetings and at various functions in hopes of raising awareness of what we do,” he said. “I do spend less time on the tennis courts now, but I’m able to work towards improving our program, helping make it more successful in the long run.”

That success, he said, can be measured by the ever-evolving role of the foundation.

“We knew we wanted to start slow, but we also recognized that we wanted to help the kids with some of the other issues they were having. We wanted to get through to them,” Washington said. “We started out as a 100 percent after-school tennis program. Now we’re probably 60 percent education and tutoring and only 40 percent tennis.

“We’ve refined our focus.”

And that redefinition seems to be working.

Whereas only 30 kids initially participated in the tennis program, Washington said about eight times as many school-aged children take advantage of the Tennis and Tutoring program across the city today.

The unveiling of the Youth Tennis and Education Complex, complete with nine tennis courts and plenty of space for tutoring, should push MWKF to the next level, he said.

“If we had continued growing at this rate we would have been bursting at the seams,” Washington said. “So we decided that we needed to partner with the City to find a site where we could better establish ourselves. The center’s going to be tremendous for us and it’s something the community can be proud of.”

Washington finishes his tea and leans back, clearly excited about the hard but rewarding work ahead.

Finding funding and building the facility were just half of the battle, he said. Being able to put it to good use and making a lasting impact on the children in the program will be where the victory lies.

“Winning a tennis match is instant gratification. It’s an adrenalin rush,” Washington said. “Working with kids is much more long-term. It’s delayed and it’s ongoing. You invest in them and hope that you make a difference. I believe we can do that.”