He was a tennis star at Yale and beyond, but Donald Dell's biggest contributions to the sport are on the business end -- and it has been that way since Arthur Ashe insisted that he serve as his agent.
Who knows what the world of professional tennis would look like today if the Dell family had not lived across the street from the Edgemoor Club in Bethesda, Md., in the 1940s?
Without that, Donald Dell might never have taken up the sport of tennis and his impact on the sport has been so profound that professional tennis today could have had a completely different landscape if the Dells' address had been different.
But Dell did grow up across the street from Edgemoor and took up tennis -- at his mother's urging -- at the age of six. A talented athlete, he starred in both tennis and basketball at the Landon School and was among the best players of both sports in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
Despite his father's preference for Princeton, he chose to attend Yale where he continued to shine in both basketball and tennis. The captain and leading scorer of Yale's freshman basketball team, Dell made the varsity team as a sophomore but was asked to make a choice and focus exclusively on one sport. Loving basketball nearly as much as tennis, he resisted choosing between the two but ultimately gave up basketball and played only tennis for his final three years at Yale.
And in tennis he dominated. He played No. 1 singles going nearly undefeated (he lost only one match in Ivy League play during his Yale career), becoming a three-time All-American (1958-60) and advancing to the NCAA championship match in 1959. During his time at Yale Dell's classmate, doubles partner and the No. 2 player on the team was Gene Scott. Scott was a phenomenal athlete who also lettered at Yale in soccer, hockey and track & field. With their 1-2 punch the tennis team lost just one Ivy League match during the four years together.
Dell's outstanding record left big footprints on the Yale and Ivy books but his impact on the sport was just beginning. After Yale, Dell continued as a student-athlete earning his law degree from the University of Virginia and continuing to play tennis. In 1961 he broke ground by becoming the first American allowed to play tennis in the former Soviet Union. His U.S. ranking rose to No. 4 in singles and No. 1 in doubles. He graduated from law school in 1964 and went to work in the litigation department of the prestigious Washington D.C., firm Hogan & Hartson.
Meanwhile, his involvement in tennis was growing and he was asked to captain the U.S. Davis Cup team -- which included Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith -- in 1968 and 1969. Dell's intention was to return to Hogan & Hartson after his Davis Cup stint, but Ashe had other plans.
Dell had encouraged Ashe to sign with IMG (International Management Group), the sports management agency founded by Mark McCormack, but Ashe insisted that Dell become his manager.
Dell founded ProServ in 1970 with an assistant and a handshake agreement between himself, Ashe and Smith. In doing so he became the first agent/manager in tennis and initiated a new era in professional tennis. Borne with an impressive client list, ProServ became the foremost management company in tennis and soon extended its reach to other sports, most notably basketball. During a 14-year period ProServ was the exclusive representative of University of North Carolina basketball players which brought Michael Jordan in to the ProServ family.
With nearly three decades representing some of the biggest names in the sports universe, as well as the reputation for being the launching pad for some of the most successful agents in the sports management industry, cemented ProServ's status as an industry leader. In 1999 Dell agreed to merge ProServ with sports and entertainment mega-company SFX and to oversee SFX's tennis division.
Yet founding ProServ is only one aspect of Dell's influence on professional tennis. He is also the co-founder of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), the players' union that has been at the epicenter of professional tennis ever since. He is Vice-Chairman and Past President of the International Tennis Hall of fame. He founded the Washington, D.C., ATP tour stop, currently known as the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, and still serves on the selection committee for U.S. Davis Cup teams.
His philanthropic accomplishments have kept him just as busy. He is actively involved with the Washington Tennis & Education foundation and has been responsible for raising more than $15 million for children's tennis in the D.C. area. His largesse extends to his alma mater where he endowed the Donald Dell Fund, a trust fund that awards an annual grant to a senior tennis player who wants to pursue a career or graduate study in sports. His remarkable partnership with Arthur Ashe continues to live on through his work as a Board Member of the Arthur Ashe Institute of Urban Health.
Along with the professional legacy that he has established, he seems equally proud of a personal legacy. Following his path, both of his twin daughters played varsity tennis at Yale and graduated from UVA law school.
With such an impressive body of work, it would be understandable if he chose to spend his time relaxing and contemplating his place in tennis history. Dell doesn't see it that way. "It is rewarding but I really only think about the impact I've had when someone brings it to my attention."
He continues traveling the globe, heading up SFX's tennis division. "The reason I'm still doing this is because I still enjoy it. I still get a certain high from closing a deal whether it is for five thousand dollars or five million dollars," he says.
Like the competitor he proved himself to be at Yale, he still likes to have the ball in his court.
— Meredith Rainey Valmon