Twenty-one years ago, on late winter afternoons in chilly Flint, Mich., MaliVai Washington could be found on the city's public tennis courts, hitting practice ball after practice ball, and stopping every few minutes to warm his fingers at the heater inside his father's car.

That summer, the summer of 1975, Arthur Ashe became the first -- and until today, the only -- black man to make it to the Wimbledon finals. He defeated Jimmy Connors, the defending champion, in a match that still stands as one of the most compelling moments in the history of men's professional tennis.

Washington, 27, will follow Ashe's long-vacant footsteps Sunday on to Wimbledon's fabled Centre Court and play Richard Krajicek of the Netherlands for the championship of the greatest tennis tournament in the world.

Washington advanced with a suitably momentous victory. In a match suspended Friday evening because of poor weather, he recovered from a daunting 5-1, fifth-set deficit to defeat fellow American Todd Martin, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (7-6), 6-3, 10-8.

"I have a lot of support from the black community in the States and around the world," Washington said, "and 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. It's an honor to be the first black since Arthur to be in the final."

For the first time in Wimbledon history, neither of the men's singles finalists is seeded. And Wimbledon's history is the most storied of the Grand Slam tournaments, which also include the Australian, French and U.S. opens.

Krajicek's path to the title match included upsets over two former champions -- Michael Stich (1991) and American Pete Sampras (1993, 1994, 1995) -- and a straight-set victory over Australian Jason Stoltenberg in a semifinal this afternoon.

Washington, who never had advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament, upset one seeded player -- No. 9 Thomas Enqvist -- in his march to today's semifinal, where he won a wrenching match against the 13th-seeded Martin, his new neighbor in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

But Washington's journey to Centre Court can be traced back so much farther than the opening of this tournament nearly two weeks ago. There is his successful college career at the University of Michigan, where he first was labeled "the next Arthur Ashe." There is his father, William Washington, who began playing tennis at age 33, and instilled in MaliVai (pronounced Mal-la-VEE-yah) and his four siblings an early devotion to a sport not widely played professionally by blacks. There is his younger brother, Mashiska, who always was willing to fill the void when he needed a partner. And there are all of those practices of his childhood, when he was barely bigger than his racket, and much smaller than his dreams.

"You watch great players play and it inspires you, no matter who it is," Washington said. "Back in 1975 when {Ashe} won Wimbledon, I'm 5 or 6 years old and you see that and it inspires you. It was a dream of mine just to be able to reach that level."

There have not been many black tennis champions to take as role models. Ashe, who died of AIDS in February 1993, is the only black American man to have won a Grand Slam tournament (France's Yannick Noah won the 1983 French Open), and Althea Gibson, who won Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, is the only black woman to have done so. Although there have been a few black women ranked among the world's top 20 players -- Zina Garrison Jackson, who reached the Wimbledon women's singles final in 1990; Lori McNeil; and Chanda Rubin, currently No. 7 -- Washington is the only black American male to reach the top 20 since Ashe last did in 1979.

Washington's highest career ranking was 11th, in 1992 and 1993. Should he win Sunday, he is guaranteed a spot in the top 10. And his career earnings in eight years as a pro will grow considerably from the nearly $2.4 million he had won prior to this tournament.

"The key is not one role model, but many role models," John Wilkerson said in a telephone interview from Houston, where he introduced Garrison Jackson and McNeil to tennis at the free clinic he runs for youngsters at a public facility. "You look at Mal and that's the exception, not the rule. It's too much pressure on Mal to expect him to be the representative for all black tennis players. It's too much for one person."

Washington is used to the comparisons to Ashe, and he finds them flattering, but also cumbersome. He has said in the past that his tennis idols were John McEnroe and Connors, white stars, rather than Ashe. He respects Ashe, but does not necessarily want to be his second coming.

"There can only be one Arthur Ashe," Washington said the week Ashe died. "To be able to accomplish some of the things that he accomplished would be great, on and off the court. But what you see is me."

When people all over the world tune their television sets to the Wimbledon men's singles final Sunday, they will see a black man playing on Centre Court for a title in tennis's premier tournament.

"Arthur won his and let's hope Mal wins his," Wilkerson said. "But it's not enough. We can't wait another 21 years. Let's get more rackets in black hands. What we need now is change." CAPTION: "There can be one Arthur Ashe," said MaliVai Washington. "What you see is me."