Whatever Happens at the U.S. Open, the Score Is Always Advantage, Donald Dell

updated 09/08/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1980 01:00AM

As tennis' 1980 U.S. Open roars toward the finals, whatever public furor the McEnroes and Connorses cause, the most controversial and ferocious figure in the stadium will be a power player who never takes the court. Once ranked No. 4 in the nation, Donald Dell, 42, is now—as lawyer, agent, promoter, sometime sportscaster and full-time wheeler-dealer—the man who helped make possible the 1980s-style tennis industry and purses like the Open's $654,000. "At a tournament," says a former associate, "Donald now usually has his back to the court because he's busy greeting clients and sponsors. He doesn't have time to watch the tennis."

Through his two Washington offices—one devoted to law and the athletes' management, the other to tournament promotions—the onetime U.S. Davis Cup captain represents defending Open champ Tracy Austin plus some 50 of the 100 top-ranked men and women touring pros, including Roscoe Tanner and Eddie Dibbs. A founding impresario of the men's Grand Prix tour, he negotiates TV contracts for the Association of Tennis Professionals (the players' union he co-founded with Jack Kramer in 1972) and is a knowledgeable, unsparing tennis commentator for both PBS and NBC.

Inevitably, all that clout has made Dell as popular with some folks as his new client, Ilie Nastase. Certainly, not everyone would agree with Arthur Ashe, Donald's longtime friend, who once said he would trust Dell with his life. "If you want to move in the sport, you have to have Donald on your side," says one fellow promoter. To illustrate, he recalls trying to schedule one of Dell's top clients for a certain event. Unless he booked an appearance for another player in Dell's stable, he was led to believe, the first client wouldn't come. "Every time we blinked," says the promoter, "someone from Dell's organization came in with a new deal to make money—for them." Then only last year Harold Solomon, a former Dell client, led a movement that stripped Dell of some of his negotiating authority on behalf of the ATP. "I was very happy with everything Dell did for me," says Solomon, "and I have no reason to believe there were any improprieties during his relationship with the ATP. But a lot of players were convinced Donald was doing stuff he shouldn't. Plus some felt he was just too intimidating." As Butch Buchholz, the ATP executive director, sums it up: "Sometimes he runs over you with track shoes. But he cares about tennis as a fan as well as a businessman, and he has changed the game more than anyone."

"For every friend I have, there's an enemy," says Dell with a sigh. "I've been in every fight there's been in tennis in the last 10 years. What I've tried to do," he says, "is make tennis bigger by making it more professional. And we haven't done everything bad. We've passed golf in every respect but TV coverage. The prize money on the men's and women's tours is over $22 million now, and we've got 34 million people who play the game three or four times a month. Sure," he admits, "when you represent the players' union and players as individuals, that's an obvious conflict of interest. But our position was that it was obvious, and that if anybody thought it was a problem we would get out."

The son of a government lawyer, Dell was born in Savannah, Ga. and brought up in Bethesda, Md., just a lob away from the Edgemoor Club, a hotbed of young tennis talent. Donald joined and by 1953 was national champion among boys 15 and under. A scholarship student, first at Yale, then at the University of Virginia Law School, he never expected to make money from tennis, but played on the Davis Cup team for three years, starting in 1961, and learned firsthand about the farce called amateur tennis. "In '61 I was No. 4 in America," he recalls. "If I wanted to play a tournament I'd wire the director and tell him my conditions were $500 plus hotel, meals and travel. He'd wire back either that my terms were acceptable or that my ranking didn't warrant the expense. I banked about $7,500 that year."

Rather than pursue the vagrant life of a tennis bum, Dell joined a Washington law firm. In the capital, he fell in with the Robert Kennedys and the Sargent Shrivers and in 1967 became a Shriver assistant in the Office of Economic Opportunity. Occasionally he would house-sit for the Kennedys at Hickory Hill, and he was godfather to the Shrivers' son Mark. During the RFK presidential campaign Dell worked as an advance man while serving part-time as nonplaying Davis Cup captain. "When Bobby was killed I threw myself into the game," he says. "We hadn't won the Cup in five years, and people were asking what was wrong with American tennis. I thought it was just a matter of priorities.

"Hiring me as captain was like inviting a skunk to a garden party," admits Dell, "but in two years we never lost a match. I'm proud of that." Tennis bluebloods were pleased for a time, but became infuriated when their enfant terrible captain began cutting financial deals for his players, in direct defiance of the game's hoary establishment. When the fusty U.S. Lawn Tennis Association came up with a scheme whereby the Davis Cuppers would endorse clothing and rackets but turn their checks over to the USLTA, Dell insisted that the money should go to the players. For this and other indiscretions, he was asked in 1970 to resign. Donald promptly opened his own law office, taking on as his first clients four of his Davis Cup mainstays—Ashe, Stan Smith, Bob Lutz and Charlie Pasarell.

Two years later he led 39 players into unionization, and the following year, when the international tennis establishment tested the resolve of the fledgling ATP by announcing a ban on one of its players, the union responded with a mass walkout at Wimbledon. "Withdrawing from the tournament was like raping the Queen," he remembers somewhat indelicately, but tennis was never the same after the Dell-organized boycott. The difference domestically is best symbolized this week at Flushing Meadow, N.Y., which replaced elegant old Forest Hills in 1978 as the U.S. Open site. There's no grass and less politesse in Flushing, but at least the increasing democracy has ended the hypocrisy of country-club-controlled "shamateurism."

Subsequently, having proven its muscle, the ATP has prospered and so has its mentor. Married since 1971, Dell lives with his wife, former airline stewardess Carole Osche, and their 7-year-old twins, Alexandra and Kristina, on a 49-acre estate in suburban Potomac, Md. "Everything in our marriage is a trade-off," says Dell, the negotiator. "Carole loves the farm and our four horses, and we have a studio where she can paint. You have to have an environment everyone is happy with," he adds dourly, "but mine seems to be the inside of an airplane." Now he is trying to change that by building an office and guest house on his Maryland property and spending more time at the family condominium in Sarasota, Fla. Carole, however, remains skeptical. Last year she wrote a small booklet on stress, nutrition and sleep, and presented it to Donald for Christmas. "The day it helps him, I'll run to a publisher," she says, "because I'll know then it can help anyone."

So driven to capitalize on every minute that he has outfitted his Cadillac Seville with a front-seat TV ("The insurance people frown on it, but I can't stand just sitting in traffic"), Dell is notorious for overcrowding his schedule and showing up hours late for appointments. When he and Carole fly together, she arrives at the airport first to arrange tickets. If Dell gets there on time, they depart. If he doesn't, she waits and rebooks. "Once I missed the flight," she recalls, "but he went without me. He said I was a stewardess and that I could make it on my own."

Ironically, the principal casualty of Dell's tennis-oriented existence is time to play the game that he loves. "I play about once every three weeks, which is criminal," he says. "I don't care at all about the esthetics, and I don't want to play social mixed doubles. I like the game when it's one against one, a real test, with no time-outs. I want to be pushed. I don't play as much now because I've lost that competitive edge, but I often think fondly—or foolishly—of taking two months off to see how good I could get. My other dream," he continues, "is to write a book about the first decade of professional tennis. There's been a lot going on, and we've been in the trenches."

Commendably, Dell is not wholly delighted with what he wrought. He believes many of today's professionals have little sense of responsibility toward either the fans or their fellow players. He is particularly critical of petulant behavior on court, players who pull out of tournaments claiming dubious injuries, and phony competitions, billed as winner-take-all, that pay players hidden guarantees for just showing up. "I've been lucky," he says. "Ashe and Smith respected the opportunity to make an honest living after the phoney-baloney days. They realized that the growth of the sport would benefit everyone. But the new breed—players like Connors and McEnroe—don't have the same values," he feels. "I'm not trying to be a damn priest, but Arthur, Stan, Rod Laver and John Newcombe all proved conclusively that you don't have to be a jerk in order to be a great champion."

Whatever has gone wrong with the game, Dell thinks it has nothing to do with his own seeming Machiavellian control. "I don't think anyone controls it, and maybe that's the problem," he reckons. "Tennis needs real leadership at the top, but to get it you'd have to get all the various pressure groups to agree on one man. I don't see that ever happening," Donald Dell adds with a knowing half smile, "especially vis-à-vis me."

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