D.C.'s Dell Earns Capstone For Life's Work in Tennis

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

Yet another international flight has left Donald Dell with a nasty cold. But he reports to his Northwest Washington office nonetheless -- ever the competitor at 71 -- because there are deals to be made and clients to serve.

Less than 72 hours have passed since Roger Federer edged Andy Roddick in a thrilling five-set Wimbledon final. And Dell, who watched the tournament's early proceedings from the royal box, can barely contain himself as he recounts the overall excellence of the match and the critical points that turned the momentum in Federer's favor.

The Swiss champion, whom Dell has recently concluded is indeed the best player in history after years of arguing on behalf of Rod Laver, collected roughly $1.38 million for his sixth Wimbledon title.

Women's singles champion Serena Williams, whom Dell admires equally, if not more, pocketed $1.57 million -- her winnings boosted by her share of the doubles title that she claimed with her sister, Venus.

Whether either realizes it, neither Federer nor Williams would command the income, endorsements or global recognition they enjoy had it not been for Dell.

As a result, Dell will make another trip this week, to Newport, R.I., where he will be inducted tomorrow into the International Tennis Hall of Fame -- the crowning achievement of a life devoted to the game.

Rounding out the Class of 2009 are nine-time Grand Slam champion Monica Seles; 1972 French Open winner Andres Gimeno of Spain; and the late Robert Johnson, a native of Norfolk who pioneered the integration of tennis and served as coach and mentor to Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.

Each is a champion. But none exerted the broad-based influence of Dell, who in 1972 helped found the Association of Tennis Professionals, which advocated for players' rights in matters of scheduling, rankings and the distribution of prize money; was the sport's first agent, as founder of ProServ; reclaimed the Davis Cup for the United States as the squad's captain in 1968 and '69; co-founded Washington's Legg Mason Tennis Classic; and served as a former player, TV commentator and perennial fan.

"He was a part of everything," said former Davis Cup captain Tom Gorman. "Everything he did was to help the game move forward."

Dell's office in the Chevy Chase Pavilion is dominated by portraits of Winston Churchill, stacks of law books and autographed posters and photos of clients over the years -- among them, Ashe, Roddick, Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Pam Shriver; and former NBA superstars Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing.

Assuming an agent's share of an athlete's earnings is 12 percent, it's safe to say after a cursory survey of these walls that Dell's riches are daunting. And that doesn't include the countless broadcast deals he has brokered for tournaments, on which margins are higher.

But he has exercised a charitable impulse throughout his career, for example, donating the Legg Mason Classic, which he and Ashe launched in 1969, to the Washington Tennis and Educational Foundation.

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?' "

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