Former tennis pro turned student serves up community service


With a little more than a decade removed from reaching the pinnacle of the tennis world, MaliVai “Mal” Washington isn’t resting on his laurels.

 Washington, a UNF finance senior, is only the second black male to ever reach the Wimbledon final, the other being tennis trailblazer Arthur Ashe.

 Although Washington, 40, did not take the Wimbledon championship in 1996 as Ashe did in 1975, he has championed community service and philanthropy with the establishment of the MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation.

 The organization began in 1994 as a grant-writing organization and a way to introduce tennis to young people.

 “I think, really, the desire or the motivation to start the foundation was really a way to connect kids to the sport of tennis, especially that group of kids who otherwise would never have that opportunity,” Washington said.

 The foundation has grown over the years to become a comprehensive center for the enhancement of academic and life skills.

 “[The foundation] still introduces kids to tennis, but that’s really 40 percent of what we do,” Washington said. “Sixty percent of what we do is homework assistance, life skills programs and getting kids to focus on the importance of education, conduct, responsibility and getting them to look at the future and the potential of their future.”

 The foundation has served around 17,000 young people since its inception, and its program offerings have grown exponentially over the years, Washington said.

 The foundation opened the MaliVia Washington Youth Center in Durkeeville, near downtown Jacksonville, in 2008. The facility houses classrooms, a fitness center and, of course, tennis courts.

 “It’s really grown out of necessity because there are a lot of needs we’re addressing, and there are a lot of kids who need that after school assistance that don’t have it,” Washington said.

 For Washington, community service isn’t something he does for notoriety or plaudits. His investment into the First Coast is born out of a sense of civic duty.

 “I don’t do it because I’m an athlete,” Washington said. “I do it because I’m a citizen of the community.”

 The foundation’s ultimate goal is to get young people prepared and motivated for college.

 “It’s very rewarding when you see a kid developing, when you see a kid advancing … when you see a youth who at one point was not motivated at all to pursue an education, and you fast forward a few years and they have a full ride to the University of North Florida,” Washington said.

 Washington began his college education at the University of Michigan on a tennis scholarship. After achieving the No. 1 ranking in NCAA men’s tennis, he went pro, leaving Ann Arbor, Mich., following his sophomore year.

 But the desire to earn a college degree never left Washington.

 “When I left the University of Michigan after my sophomore year, there was no doubt in my mind that at some point I would finish my undergraduate degree,” Washington said.

 The culmination of that goal is now within sight, some 20 years later, as Washington is set to receive his degree from UNF at the end of the Fall 2010 semester.

Washington came to Jacksonville in the mid-nineties after he began training at the Association of Tennis Professionals Americas headquarters in Ponte Vedra, where he now lives with his wife and two children.

He always thought he would return to the Great Lakes State and finish out his education as a Wolverine, but his time as an Osprey has been a rewarding one, he said.

 “My experience at UNF has been tremendous,” Washington said. “I’m not sure what my impression of UNF was prior to actually attending there, but it’s far exceeded my expectations in terms of the quality of the education it provides and even some of the relationships I’ve had with some of my professors.”

 The balancing act of budgeting time between his schoolwork, his family, his foundation and his real estate company has been challenging, Washington said.

 But perhaps the biggest difference between the first act of Washington’s college experience and the second is his mindset.

 “I come from a very different prospective now at 40 years old than I did over 20 years ago when I started at the University of Michigan,” Washington said.

 He said he has a much greater appreciation for the opportunity to gain a college education, and he is more focused on his classes than previous years.

 “Twenty years ago I was where many of my peers are today,” Washington said. “I didn’t fully appreciate what I had at the University of Michigan, and a part of that is just a function of age and lack of maturity, but now I’m 40 years old and I’m going to school because I want to be there, not cause I have to be.”

 Above all, Washington urged his fellow Ospreys to get involved in the community.

 “Everyone has their family, everyone has their career, that’s just a given,” Washington said. “But everyone I think also needs to find something in the community where they have an impact that’s benefiting others.”