When Donald Dell entered a tennis tournament as a teenager, he had no way of knowing that the tournament would change his life. Not only did he end up winning the national boys tennis championship, but he played through college and later represented the U.S. by playing on the Davis Cup tennis team.
Years after that first tournament, Dell learned that the money that was paid to enter him into the tournament had not been his father’s as he had thought, but rather had come from a local charitable organization.
“I became the national boys champion when I was playing with that money,” Dell said. Dell wanted to repay not just the money, but the kindness that went into the donation. When he finally had the opportunity to give back he never stopped.
For his efforts, Dell, a Bethesda native and Potomac resident, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation last weekend.
“He’s been so special to this organization for so many years that we created the award for Donald,” said Eleni Rossides, WTEF’s executive director.
FOUNDED IN 1955, WTEF provides after-school programs that combine tennis and academic mentoring programs targeted for at-risk youth in Washington, D.C.
“Our goal is to help [children] develop lines on the court and in the classroom,” said Rossides, adding the parallel between tennis and life teaches important lessons to children.
“It teaches focus, determination and goal-setting; tennis teaches you how to focus and how to keep trying,” said Rossides. “We take those lessons, and translate them to the classroom.”
Through scholastic enhancement and mentoring programs combined with teaching the sport of tennis, WTEF has had a profound impact on the lives of many D.C. youth.
WTEF’s Center for Excellence offers mentoring programs and tennis lessons to students in grades 1 through 12.
“We believe that college preparation begins a lot earlier than ninth grade,” Rossides said.
WTEF’s Arthur Ashe Children’s Program gets approximately 20 high school students to each year to play varsity tennis for their schools, takes them on college tours and provides scholastic help. For nine straight years, 100 percent of those involved in the program have graduated high school and gone on to junior colleges, four-year colleges, Ivy League colleges, or other colleges across the country, Rossides said.
Dell believes that the role that tennis has played in that success can’t be underestimated.
“Tennis is very distinct,” Dell said. “It’s an individual sport, not a team sport. As in life, there are no timeouts, no substitutions — if you’re playing lousy … you can’t call a timeout. It teaches you to be very self-sufficient and self-reliant.”
NOW 68 YEARS OLD, Dell has been a professional tennis player, a lawyer, and a sports agent among other trades.
He retired from tennis in the early 1960s to go to law school, worked briefly as a lawyer, then went on to serve as the personal assistant to Sargent Shriver, the founder of the Peace Corps, and the first director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. For a year and a half Dell traveled the country and the world at Shriver’s side.
“It was the most exciting 18 months of my life, it really was,” Dell said of his time with Shriver. “It was just a very, very interesting time. I used to tell people, ‘My job is to carry Sargent Shriver’s briefcase, but it’s a very interesting briefcase,’ and it’s true, my job was very interesting.”
What Dell learned from Shriver was people skills.
“How to inspire, how to motivate people; Shriver had probably the best people skills of anyone I’ve ever met, anywhere, ever,” Dell said. Dell remains close with Shriver and his family today, he said.
That quality rubbed off on Dell, said Jerry Jasinowski, a long-time friend and associate of Dell’s.
“Donald is first and foremost a people person,” said Jasinowski. “His first love is people on both a professional and a personal level that he can be engaged in conversation with … and having fun.”
Dell returned to tennis briefly to captain the 1968 and 1969 Davis Cup teams before opening ProServ, a sports agency, in 1970. The agency focused on tennis players initially before growing to represent top names in all the major sports.
One of Dell's first clients was tennis great Arthur Ashe, who had played for Dell when he was the captain of the Davis Cup team. The two became close friends.
"I was his lawyer for 23 years on a handshake," Dell said. "We had a letter that we each signed that first year, but it expired after a year and we never renewed it ... 23 years on a handshake, that's pretty good."
They faced each other just once on the tennis court, as Dell's professional career was winding down and Ashe's was getting warmed up.
"He beat me pretty easily, as I recall."
Dell also founded the Legg Mason tennis tournament in 1969, the year after tennis began allowing professional and amateurs to play in the same tournaments for prize money.
“That really started the growth of tennis on a global basis,” Dell said.
In 1972 he began splitting the proceeds from the tournament with WTEF, the foundation that had paid Dell’s entrance fee into the youth tournament that helped pave his way for a lifetime of involvement in the sport.
“The important thing about it [was that] our dream was to turn tennis money into tennis money for the youth of the D.C. area,” Dell said. Over the years Dell estimates that he has contributed, through the Legg Mason tournament, $15 million to WTEF, as well as countless hours of his time.
FOR HIS CONTRIBUTIONS, both financially and in the hours of his time that he has given to the organization over the years, WTEF awarded Dell its first Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Donald was a product of the program… [and] he felt very strongly about giving back to the organization,” Rossides said.
Jasinowski has worked with Dell through WTEF and other charitable organizations and has known him for nearly twenty years.
“I’ve just seen Donald sit down with dozens of young people to advise them on sports and their careers over the years,” said Jerry Jasinowski, a long-time associate and friend of Dell’s. “My vision of Donald is him sitting with a 16 year-old boy or girl, asking them what they want to achieve in life.”
Aside from bringing the Legg Mason tournament to D.C. and contributing to WTEF through the tournament, Dell has brought donors and found other supporters for the organization.
“He’s always very supportive,” Rossides said. “He’s always there for help and advice when we need him.”