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Donald Dell to Be Inducted Into International Tennis Hall of Fame
As the Washington area's top high school prospect in the late 1950s, Dell had a twofold agenda: play as much tennis as he could while getting the best education possible. Yale afforded him the opportunity. But after graduating in 1960, he deferred enrollment in law school to play full time -- a humble calling in an era in which major tournaments were restricted to amateurs.
"If I made $200 a week in expenses, I was in heaven," Dell recalls with a laugh.
A strong showing against Laver at the U.S. Open earned him a spot on the 1961 U.S. Davis Cup team. So Dell brokered a deal to delay enrollment yet again at the University of Virginia's law school, promising to be in class midway through first semester, so he could represent the United States in ties against India and Italy.
After law school, Dell joined Washington-based Hogan & Hartson, then became a special assistant to Sargent Shriver in the Office of Economic Opportunity. He resigned the government post in 1968 to work on the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy, a close friend and frequent tennis partner.
Kennedy's assassination quashed Dell's passion for politics, and he threw himself into his other assignment, reclaiming the Davis Cup as captain of the U.S. squad.
With a roster consisting of Ashe, Smith, Bob Lutz, Charlie Pasarell and Clark Graebner, Dell demanded total commitment.
It was Ashe who persuaded Dell to become his agent shortly after the open era dawned in 1968. With tournaments abandoning rules of amateurism, considerable prize money was at stake, and top players needed help managing their financial affairs.
At Ashe's urging, Dell opened the Law Offices of Donald Dell in 1970. He was the sole employee; Ashe and Smith, his only clients. But his vision was clear. Before the open era, tennis was regarded as a hobby of the idle and privileged.
"That's where you got the stigma of being a 'tennis bum,' " Dell recalled. "I heard that phrase a lot."
With the advent of open tennis, Dell saw an opportunity to transform it into a viable calling, much like golf.
As a result, Smith, now 62, still gets an annual paycheck from Adidas for percentage of its best-selling tennis sneaker, the Stan Smith model -- a deal Dell brokered on his behalf in 1972 and recently extended another decade.
"I have pretty much total faith in his judgment as far as negotiating relationships," said Smith, who will deliver Dell's induction speech tomorrow. "He was always tough but creative. And competitive. He always wanted to get the best deal possible."
It was one deal among countless Dell has authored. And today, surveying the landscape of the sport, he takes a small measure of satisfaction in every pro's success.
"What is proudest, really, for me, is that both men and women who are really good young tennis players, who are trying hard to improve, and are disciplined and dedicated and work hard -- they can make it a profession, just like I can be a lawyer or you can be a doctor," Dell said. "No one's saying to Federer or Roddick, 'What do you do for a living besides play tennis?' "