Stern and imposing — not a hair out of place — Donald Dell strikes quite a pose. The cover photo of his new book, “Never Make the First Offer and other Wisdom No Dealmaker Should Be Without” — features him behind a table, hands clasped wearing a blue pinstripe suit with a red power tie. His expression, tells us, make no mistake, he is all business.
Yale grad, NCAA finalist, Davis Cup captain, broadcaster, beltway lawyer, agent extraordinaire, big-time dealmeister and tournament director, the Washingtonian was once one of the first great deal makers in tennis and, come to think of it, he’s now one of the last great dealmakers in tennis.
From the start, Dell’s book is unsparing. He tells us: “Sports can be a dirty business, with people going back on their words, lying, cheating, and stealing — and that’s just the expected thing.”
As for tennis, he admits at times it’s “just a more elitist version of boxing.”
Over five decades, Dell’s far-reaching and often unseen contributions to the game have been immense and this July he, at last, was a (good choice, guys) inductee into the International Hall of Fame.
Dell has brokered huge TV deals, run successful tournaments and guided the careers of not only a fellow named Michael Jordan, but tennis folks from Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors and Stan Smith to Yannick Noah, Andy Roddick and Melanie Oudin. A couple of long-ago quips by his Wimbledon broadcast partner Bud Collins captured the essence of the guy’s impact: “Donald, it’s 8 a.m. back on the East Coast. So how many deals have you done today?” And “Donald, I guess I can’t accuse you of conflict of interest today because in this match you represent both players.”
Much of Dell’s book is a primer on biz: call it tennis’ answer to Donald Trump‘s “The Art of the Deal.” We’re told: use shock value, stack the deck, get noticed, don’t sue, don’t fall in love with the sound of your own voice, recognize your own leverage, stay balanced.
Dell says that “the most outwardly serene and inwardly competitive person I have ever known — even more so than Michael Jordan — was not even a professional athlete. It was Senator Robert F. Kennedy,” who Dell worked for. Were it not for Kennedy’s assassination, Dell contends, RFK “would have been the next president and would have changed the course of American history.”
Amidst all of Dell’s business tips and curious ramblings, tennis lovers will find a delicious array of morsels to chew on:
•Arthur Ashe’s sponsor, the conglomerate AMF, wanted Ashe to agree to never join the Black Panthers.
•After spotting 13-year-old Yannick Noah playing with a hand-carved racket in the Cameroons, Ashe famously told Dell, “You wouldn’t believe this kid I just hit with. He may be the most natural tennis player I’ve ever seen.”
•Donald Trump is relentless, brilliantly knows how to work his considerable reputation and “has more chutzpah than almost anybody I’ve ever met.” And indeed a smitten Trump managed to find a way to get Gabriella Sabatini’s number and asked her out. (The Argentine beauty refused.)
•When Venus and Serena were just unproven 14 and 13-year olds, Richard Williams wanted (as part of a representation deal,) a $350,000 payment “for being their father.”
•Dell asserted, “When it comes to hemming and hawing, [former USTA marketing whiz Arlen Kantarian] is absolutely the best I’ve ever encountered…Just when I think I’ve gotten a deal nailed down, he’ll say, ‘So what about this?’ or ‘I need to give it some more thought’…or “I may need board approval.”
•Before the ATP signed what proved to be a disastrous, almost tour-wrecking deal with the ISL agency, Dell pleaded, “Please don’t accept that deal. That price is so over inflated; they will never make their money back. It could cause whoever pays that to go under, and then everybody loses.”
•Jimmy Connors was his “most difficult client of all time.” When he stubbornly refused to go to the Olympics for 10 days, NBC fired him and so began the broadcasting career of his replacement — John McEnroe.
•In ’83, Dell snookered much of tennis when he navigated Connors to a U.S. Open win over Ivan Lendl. First he convinced Jimmy to play despite a brutal blood blister. Then he used every trick in the trade to deal with trainers and officials so as to get Connors a secret pain-killing shot in the locker room mid-way through the match, despite all the yelping protestations of a knowing but hapless Lendl.
•Connors’ mother Gloria once called him with just three things on her mind. Fix Jimmy’s overcrowded schedule for his upcoming trip to Japan. Cut some slits in his new, too-tight Converse shoes and you’re fired.