February 7 1997: Malivai Washington fights through career ending knee injury in Davis Cup

Every day, Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. On February 7, 1995, MaliVai Washington suffered the injury that would end his career.

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What happened on that day and why it is memorable?

On this day, February 7, 1997, in the first round of the Davis Cup, MaliVai Washington, from the United States, played through a knee injury to defeat Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten (3-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-3). Although Washington would have the satisfaction to give his team a decisive lead he would unfortunately never recover from that injury. Despite two surgeries, the 1996 Wimbledon runner-up would never be able to consistently compete at a professional level.

Who was involved?

MaliVai Washington, from the United States, was born in 1969. He started his professional career in 1989, and the following year, he entered the top 100 and was named ATP “”rookie of the year”, finishing 1990 as world No 93. His best season on the Tour had been 1992: that year, he claimed the first of his four career titles in Memphis (defeating Wayne Ferreira in the final, 6-3, 6-2), before winning a second tournament in Charlotte and reaching the fourth round of the US Open (lost to Michael Chang, 6-2, 2-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1). Thanks to these results, he climbed as high as world No 11, which would remain the highest ranking of his career. He obtained his most memorable result at Wimbledon, in 1996, where he finished runner-up to Richard Krajicek (6-3, 6-4, 6-3) after coming back from a 1-5 deficit in the fifth set to beat Todd Martin in the semi-finals (5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3, 10-8). He started 1997 by reaching the Australian Open fourth round (defeated by Felix Mantilla, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1). 

Gustavo Kuerten was born in Brazil in 1976. He turned pro in 1995, and he entered the top 100 in August 1996, after two promising wins on clay against world no.21 Alberto Berasategui and world no.22 Carlos Moya. In February 1997, he was world No 85.

The place

The 1997 Davis Cup first-round tie between Brazil and the United States was held in Brazil, at the Tennis Country Club, in Ribeirão Preto, on clay courts, under a suffocating tropical heat.

The facts

MaliVai Washington was not supposed to participate in the Davis Cup first round against Brazil, until Andre Agassi, who had been originally chosen by captain Tom Gullikson along with Jim Courier, but was not in a great shape, pulled out. 

For Washington, it was a great opportunity. A member of an American golden generation, with players like Agassi, Sampras, Courier and Chang, he had only played twice for his country, despite having reached the 1996 Wimbledon final. In the opening match of this tie against Brazil, he was to face 20-year-old Gustavo Kuerten, who was almost a complete unknown at the time.

“Back in 1996, I had heard of Kuerten. He had had some results and cracked the top 100 by the end of 1996. I heard of him, but I didn’t know anything about him. I had never seen him play. Honestly, I didn’t know who he was,” Washington would recall in 2013, according to worldtennismagazine.com. 

Although he entered the court as the heavy favourite, Washington soon found himself in trouble under the Brazilian heat, on a surface that didn’t really suit his game, against an unbridled Kuerten who was firing crazy one-handed backhands from the baseline. The American lost the first set, 6-3, and had to put up a tough fight to take the second set, 8-6 in the tie-break. The third set was also very close, but when Washington led 5-3 in the tie-break, he felt a sharp pain in his left knee. It didn’t prevent him from sealing the third set. To deal with the pain, the 1996 Wimbledon runner-up relied on ice and painkillers, and played through the obvious injury and won the fourth set, 6-3, giving America the first point. 

“You have your teammates there pulling for you and yelling for you, there’s no sense of giving up,” said Washington. “It wasn’t until after the match that I fully realized how bad things were in my knee. I remember right after the match, being in the locker room, and not being able to squat down and pick up a ball.”

18 years later, asked by Randy Walker if he would have pulled out of the match if it had been a regular ATP event and not a Davis Cup match, he responded without hesitation. “Oh God yeah.”

What happened next?

Thanks to Washington’s effort, the United States would avoid a dangerous decider against Brazil: Jim Courier would seal the tie on Sunday’s first match, defeating Kuerten in 3 hours 36 minutes (6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 7-6).

Diagnosed with Chondromalacia, MaliVai Washington would undergo two surgeries, but he would never fully recover from this injury and he would never manage to play consistently at a professional level ever again. He would put an end to his career at the end of 1999.

Gustavo Kuerten, a complete unknown in February, would become a tennis superstar a few months later, claiming the first of this three Roland-Garros crowns, defeating three former champions on his way to the title, including Sergi Bruguera in the final (6-3, 6-4, 6-2).

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