Wimbledon 96 : Washington making a name for himself

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The Independent Online
It is not easy being an umpire at Wimbledon. You have to adjudicate on codes of dress, player behaviour and close line calls. And then there are the names.

The sporting equivalent of Peter Piper is offered at Wimbledon every year and yesterday the big one seemed to be MaliVai Washington v Bohdan Ulihrach. The accepted pronunciation for the former in Europe is "mally- vi", but if you asked for that person at the front door of his Florida home a puzzled look would spread over the occupant's face. (The caller might feel a bit weary anyway after the walk up the drive: Washington has collected career prize money of $2,372,042 (pounds 1.5m).

Our man is actually called called mal-la-VEE-yah and his parents seem to believe the initial M sits rather nicely with the Washington surname. None of that George or Denzil nonsense. MaliVai has a brother Mashiska and three sisters, Mashona, Micheala and Masanja.

As he had to deal with only surnames, the umpire on Court Two was spared a verbal faux pas yesterday whenever Washington had to be mentioned. But on the occasions his opponent won a game, a strange noise came from the top of the official's chair, the sort you normally hear when you find your grandad gargling in the bathroom. Bohdan Ulihrach (BO-dan, OO-lee- rock) sounds as dreadful as Vlad The Impaler and his name certainly scared the living daylights out of John Frame (frame).

Washington was less disturbing. His manners are lovely. The world No 20 does not miss on any please or thank you when ball-boys bring him water, and on the rare occasions he had to question a call yesterday, he approached the chair with an almost embarrassed posture.

Washington may be 5ft 11in but he is operating in the land of the giants and his chunky body accentuates this relative smallness. Over the net was the modern prototype. The 21-year-old from Prague is 6ft 2in of the leanest cut in the shop. But, as the match progressed, Ulihrach, shrank further from his full height to end up a bent, forlorn figure. In less than an hour and a quarter Washington had blown away him, and the Czech Republic's sense of invincibility, by a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 scoreline.

With Boris Becker now removed, the American appears to have calm waters ahead of him to the semi-finals, where he should not count on the undivided support that rolled from the stands yesterday. He could meet one Tim Henman at that stage. That would be some progress for the 27-year-old, as he has never previously been beyond the second round here. In 1991 he led Ivan Lendl by two sets to love before presenting the No 3 seed with the match on a velvet cushion.

For some reason people reckon the bet of the tournament is Sampras. But the only real certainty is Washington to go through a sentence without using the word "heck" or the phrase "you know". He will not be appearing on Radio Four's Just A Minute.

Washington is the best black American player since Arthur Ashe and recognises that tennis is not the preferred sport among black children. "You know, the kids I was growing up with, none of them ever played tennis and I got a couple of jabs," he said. "It can be an economic thing, I mean it's not the cheapest sport in the world, but heck, my Dad taught me so it's not like we were ever paying for tennis lessons.''

Payment for anything is no longer a problem, especially as Washington could probably earn just as much as a male model. People magazine once selected him as among "The Top 50 Most Beautiful People in the World." Heck, that makes him blush you know.

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