WASHINGTON — Soviet sports officials are hoping a generous serving of American capitalism will transform their dormant tennis program into a world-class operation.
The Soviet Union, in an unprecedented move, has hired a prominent sports management firm to represent members of the Soviet tennis teams in Grand Prix events and secure endorsements and merchandising agreements for the athletes. It is the first time Russians athletes will be represented by a Western agent.
Agent Donald Dell and his Washington-based company, ProServ, will be handling about 50 Soviet tennis players. In conjunction with the agreement, the firm also will help set up the first professional international tournament ever held in Russia.
"I think it's sort of ironic. We're obviously being hired to do some capitalistic things on behalf of the Russian tennis federation," Dell said. "This is just one more example of how the sports world gets smaller, and I think that's good."
Dell, a tennis player in the 1960s, also represents Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Yannick Noah, as well as the NBA's Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing and baseball's Dave Winfield.
Soviet tennis has been nearly invisible since Alex Metreveli reached the final at Wimbledon in 1973, the year that most of the top international stars joined an Association of Tennis Professionals boycott of the sports' showcase event.
In fact, in the late 1970s, Soviet sports officials decided to keep their tennis players out of most international competitions, placing them virtually exclusively in Eastern Bloc events.
"The tennis level in Russia went down immediately because they've got to travel internationally and compete internationally to have a chance," Dell said.
But with tennis being introduced as a full-fledged medal sport in the Olympics, Russia's commitment to the sport has been transformed. As the Soviets seek to upgrade the level of their tennis, several Russian players are seeing time on the men's and women's international pro circuit and several young players are showing promise as future stars.
"Competition against international teams and athletes is important in the overall development of our tennis players," Aleksei Lukash, deputy chairman of the Soviet Sports Committee, said in a statement. "ProServ will help make this exchange of athletes and events possible through its work for Soviet tennis players when they are traveling and competing outside of the USSR."
The Russians will be competing as professionals--"a big breakthrough," according to Dell. However, Dell said the players likely will not be permitted to keep their prize money, which might be funneled back into the coffers of the Soviet tennis federation.
The No. 1 Soviet men's player is Andrei Chesnokov, 20, a right-handed serve-and-volleyer. Chesnokov has competed in several Grand Prix events, with his biggest victory coming earlier this year in Atlanta against American Scott Davis, ranked 49th in the world.
"He has a two-handed backhand that looks like (Bjorn) Borg's," Dell said. "He doesn't really play like Borg because he comes into the net a lot, but his backhand shot looks a lot like Borg."
Neither of the other two top men, Aleksandr Zverev, 26, nor Aleksandr Volkov, 18, has recorded significant international victories.
The Russian women have had much more success. The doubles team of No. 1 Svetlana Cherneva Parkhomenko, 23, and No. 2 Larissa Savchenko, 19, was recently ranked by Virginia Slims as the world's No. 8 women's doubles team.
And there seem to be some quality young players coming along, like Leila Meshki, 16, who is the world's No. 49 junior, and Natalia Zwerewa, 15, the No. 118 junior.
"The girls team under 16 looks stronger than the boys team," Dell said.
But Dell cautioned that "it will take some time" before there are truly world-class Soviet tennis players. "The Russians previously had never made a commitment to this kind of thing."
Dell said he will try to line up product endorsements and appearances by the Russians, much as he has done for Connors, Jordan and Ewing. But will there be a Volkov line of tennis shoes?
"Don't hold you're breath, but you just might see it, particularly if they have good players," Dell said.
"On the marketing side, we are in charge of exclusively representing the Russians as a team, so we may try to put the group of players with a soft drink company or a company that lends itself product-wise. Rackets, shoes and clothing are obvious tools of the trade," he added. "We'll be marketing them as a unit, as a team, as opposed to one individual. Most of them speak reasonable English."
Dell said he will handle the accommodations for the Soviet players and coaches.
"The Russians are going to travel as a team and train as a team, much like the Australians used to in the old days on the Davis Cup team," he said. "They're going to bring a team over like eight players, they'll have coaches and managers and they'll travel as a unit. Our job will be to make their arrangements for travel, practice, training and all of that."
Dell, who played three times in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, said the first professional tournament in the Soviet Union is being planned for 1987 in Moscow. He said the event could become part of the Grand Prix tour if top-flight players and sponsors can be lured to the tournament.
"We've more or less agreed to do it, but we haven't worked out the dates and the details yet," Dell said.