The U.S. Open tennis tournament begins three weeks from this Monday. At that point, most sports fans will take note of it and wait until the last weekend before really getting interested—as long as the tennis doesn’t interfere with their NFL watching in a way.
Here in Washington though, this is a big tennis week. You see, the Legg-Mason Tennis Classic is in town and Andy Roddick (gasp!) is actually playing in downtown D.C. So is defending champion Juan Martin Del Potro.
Yes, seriously, Juan Martin Del Potro.
I shouldn’t make fun of Del Potro who is a fine player, a legitimate top ten guy. But for as long as I can remember, Washington’s tennis tournament, regardless of its name—and its been few a number of them—has always been built on luring one, or occasionally two, American stars to play in ludicrous heat and then hope they don’t lose early.
It’s been Jimmy Connors; it’s been Andre Agassi. Now it’s Andy Roddick. Ivan Lendl also came for a while and he was something of a draw because people came hoping he would lose. What all these guys have in common is that they were represented at some point by Donald Dell.
It can be argued that Dell was tennis’s first agent—certainly he was the sport’s first really important agent. He was inducted—correctly in my mind—into the International Tennis Hall of Fame last month. There’s no doubting his impact on the sport. He was a good player, a Davis Cup captain and an agent who built players careers and portfolios (including his close friend Arthur Ashe) and tournaments and did (and does) loads of TV negotiations for events with networks.
Dell and I had many a battle through the years, many of them centering on the tennis tournament in DC, which is very much his baby and has been since he helped found it 40 years ago.
When I was a kid reporter at The Post back in 1979 I was assigned to cover what was then The Washington Star International Tennis Classic. (Guillermo Vilas once famously thanked, “The Washington Post,” for its sponsorship after winning the tournament causing the suits at The Star to go crazy).
This was a big assignment for me because, then (as now) The Post treated the tournament as if it was slightly more important than Wimbledon. I was writing a lead story every day; a sidebar, a notebook and, some days, a separate feature. I was in heaven.
Dell had even more to do than I did. He was running the tournament. He was representing most of the big name players who were there. He was selling most of the advertising. He had negotiated the TV deal AND he was Bud Collins’ color commentator for the telecasts on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
The way the schedule fell, two quarterfinals were played Thursday, two more on Friday. The Thursday winners were Jose Luis Clerc and Corrado Barrazzutti—both fine players, one from Argentina, one from Italy. The Friday winners were Gene Mayer and Brian Gottfried, both final players, both Americans—both Dell clients.
You will never guess which match TV wanted for its Saturday afternoon telecast.
There was, however, a potential problem. Mayer, who had often had trouble with heat cramps in his career, had played in searing heat Friday afternoon and had played doubles until after midnight. Clerc and Barrazzutti had the entire day off Friday. Clearly, it made scheduling sense to put them on first and let Mayer and Gottfried play later in slightly cooler weather.
Tough call for Dell. Did he do what was best for the tournament or what was best for TV? Put it this way: Gottfried and Mayer played in the afternoon. Sure enough, after a close first set, Mayer pulled up virtually lame with cramps and hobbled to a 6-1 second set loss.
Well, the kid reporter couldn’t let this go without talking to Dell. I found him outside one of the trailers that served as tournament headquarters (Rock Creek Park Stadium was about as makeshift as it got back then). I introduced myself and posed what I thought was a reasonable question: “Wearing all the different hats you do this week, how do you make a decision like the one you had today? Isn’t it a little bit tough for you?”
Dell exploded. “What is this?” he screamed, “some kind of ------ Watergate investigation? Who are you, Woodward or Bernstein?”
That quote was all I needed. I thanked Dell and headed off to work. I was sitting in the media trailer at my typewriter (yes, it was a LONG time ago) when Dell walked up behind me and asked if I had a minute. Apparently Charlie Brotman, who did PR for the tournament then and still does now, had convinced him after witnessing our conversation that he had better have another word with me.
We went outside to talk. Dell launched into a very long monologue about his love for Gene Mayer; his love for the tournament; the work the tournament did for charity and finished by saying how we had always had a good relationship because I had always been so fair to him.
“Donald, thanks,” I said. “But we just met 10 minutes ago and I’ve never written about you before.”
Naturally, I used the Watergate quote.
I hadn’t been on the grounds five minutes the next morning when I heard a voice across he compound. “You couldn’t resist could you? You guys are ALL the same.”
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Now though, we’re both a lot older and I guess we’ve mellowed. Even so, I couldn’t help but chuckle this morning to pick up the paper and read a column about Andy Roddick’s new found maturity and stardom since his historic Wimbledon loss to Roger Federer.
Most of the quotes in the story came from his agent: Donald Dell. Who was in his box at The Legg-Mason tennis Classic.
It comforted me knowing that some things DO stay the same. In fact, as an aside, a few weeks ago when I was still recovering after my heart surgery I watched the final from Newport. Bud Collins was doing play-by-play. And alongside, doing some color? You bet: Donald Dell. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Oh, by the way, The Post had three reporters at The Legg-Mason. Took three of them to replace me even 30 years later.