Obituaries

Fred Kovaleski, tennis player and CIA spy, dies at 93

Mr. Kovaleski served as the handler of a KGB lieutenant colonel and tennis player who defected to the United States.
Mark Mitchell via New York Times/file 2009
Mr. Kovaleski served as the handler of a KGB lieutenant colonel and tennis player who defected to the United States.

NEW YORK — Fred Kovaleski, whose international tennis-playing career became his cover in the 1950s while working as a spy for the CIA, died of cancer May 25 at his home in New York City. He was 93.

Mr. Kovaleski was well into his career on the tennis circuit, having played at Wimbledon and in tournaments abroad and in the United States, when he joined the CIA in 1951 and began training in spycraft at Camp Peary, near Williamsburg, Va.

Within three years, his ability to play tennis and also speak Russian became essential when Yuri Rastvorov, a KGB lieutenant colonel and avid tennis player, defected to the United States.

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Rastvorov — a major espionage asset who revealed important information about the KGB and the Soviet government — defected in Tokyo and was taken to a CIA safe house in Potomac, Md., where agents interrogated him for hours every day for months. Mr. Kovaleski, his handler, did not participate in the interrogations; at night, they talked, and the information he gleaned went into his reports.

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“It was all business,” Mr. Kovaleski was quoted as saying in a 2006 article in The Washington Post Magazine, written by his son, Serge, who is now a reporter for The New York Times. “It was stern and sterile. The attitude was that this is an enemy officer, and we owned him now, and we were going to squeeze all the information possible out of him.”

Mr. Kovaleski acted more like a friend to Rastvorov, whose code name was Dipper 19. They drank and played tennis together. “When it came time to play, 19 was like a horse bounding out of the starting gate,” Mr. Kovaleski told the Post.

Two or three times a week, the tennis-loving spies played on a court at another CIA officer’s house nearby.

“I never hit a winner against him,” Mr. Kovaleski said in the Post. “The idea was to make him feel better about himself, to soothe his ego. And I think the tennis was real therapy for him.”

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Rastvorov and Mr. Kovaleski parted in August 1954, when the State Department publicly revealed that Rastvorov had defected and been granted asylum.

Mr. Kovaleski’s next mission was in Cairo, where the CIA was tapping the Soviet Embassy’s phone lines; Mr. Kovaleski translated the conversations. Soon after, he brought a Soviet defector from Alexandria to Cairo for a transfer to West Germany.

While in Cairo, he met and fell in love with Manya (Poliakine) Jabes, whose Russian-born parents had fled to Egypt after the Russian Revolution. She was married at the time to an Egyptian banker with two children. After her divorce, he petitioned the CIA to approve their marriage; the agency was wary of its agents marrying foreigners who could be security risks.

“I supplied her name, birth date, family members, et cetera, all of which was cabled back to D.C. for security processing,” Mr. Kovaleski told the College of William & Mary alumni magazine in 2010. “They discovered that Manya’s father had divorced Manya’s mother, married another Russian woman who was a poet and returned to the Soviet Union.”

Because Manya’s family ties were considered a problem by the CIA, Mr. Kovaleski was told that he would have to leave the agency if he married her. He resigned, and they were married in Beirut on April 1, 1957.

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Mr. Kovaleski was born in Maynard, Mass., and grew up in a Polish enclave in Hamtramck, Mich. His mother and father had emigrated from Poland. As a boy, Fred played handball well, which prompted a gym teacher, Jean Hoxie, to suggest that he play tennis. When his father declined to buy him a $10 racket, Hoxie did, and she taught him to play. By 17, he was a member of the US Junior Davis Cup team.

“Hoxie says to me, ‘Fred, I want you to get out of this town,’ ” he told the William & Mary magazine. She helped arrange for him to attend William & Mary on a tennis scholarship.

But soon after starting college, he enlisted in the Army. As a paratrooper with the 11th Airborne Division, he helped liberate about 2,100 prisoners from Los Banos, a Japanese internment camp in the Philippines, in 1945. After the war, he returned to William & Mary, was part of the team that won the NCAA tennis championships in 1947 and ’48, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

In 1950, he lost in the final of the US National Indoor Tennis Championships and reached the fourth round of Wimbledon. Early the next year, while playing in Egypt, he met a US embassy official who offered to direct him to a post-tennis career with the State Department. When he asked for the help, the path led to an interview with the CIA.

With tennis as his cover, he continued to play in tournaments. While competing at the National Tennis Championships in Forest Hills, Queens, in 1954, he was identified as a “tall, dark-haired Defense Department worker.”

When his time with the agency ended in 1957, Mr. Kovaleski started work as a trainee with Pepsi in Khartoum, Sudan. He worked around the world at increasingly higher levels of the international divisions of Revlon, Schering-Plough, and Nabisco Brands.

And he continued to play tennis, until age 92, as one of the world’s top-ranked seniors.

His wife died in 2014. His son is his only immediate survivor.