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On This Day: Rebellion & Independence

On September 23, 1970, nine women tennis players took on the old-boy network. And won.

Published September 23, 2010 12:00

On This Day: Rebellion & Independence
Clockwise from top left: Valerie Ziegenfuss, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Gladys Heldman, Rosie Casals, Kerry Melville Reid, Judy Dalton. Not pictured: Julie Heldman

FLASHBACK: September 23, 1970

The introduction of Open Tennis in 1968 brought an end to 'shamateurism', but it didn't do much for the women who played the sport. In fact, in the first couple of years the gulf in prize money offered to men and women only grew. Adding insult to injury, there were no tournaments where the women could shine on their own terms. Everything was 'together'.

Matters came to a head in the summer of 1970, when Jack Kramer's prestigious Pacific Southwest event proposed paying the men eight times as much as the 'fairer sex' - even though the intended women's field was packed with stars.

Enter Gladys Heldman, the savvy founder and publisher of World Tennis magazine. Devoted to the sport and a passionate advocate of the women who played it, Heldman counseled Billie Jean King, the powerbroker among the players, against a boycott of Kramer's tournament. Instead, when the tennis great would not budge on prize money, she arranged for the Houston Racquet Club to host a women-only tournament.

Riding the winds of societal change, the initial $5,000 purse was to come from ticket sales to women's groups associated with tennis in the city. Heldman persuaded her friend Joseph Cullman III, an avid tennis fan and chairman of tobacco giant Philip Morris, to provide an additional $2,500 - taking the total pool to $7,500.

For the so-called Virginia Slims Invitational Heldman recruited players who signed weeklong $1 contracts with her company. More than just symbolic, this protected the tennis club from any lawsuit launched by the tennis establishment.

Despite threats from the USLTA that they would become unranked and banned from competing at Grand Slams and other traditional tournaments like the Federation Cup, nine women signed up: King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Peaches Bartkowicz and Valerie Ziegenfuss. They became known as the Original Nine.

"I felt a sense of both fear and exhilaration," recalls King, four decades on. "We knew we were making history and we had such a strong sense of purpose. I just kept thinking about the vision we had for the future of our sport. We wanted to ensure that any girl in the world that was good enough would have a place to go and make a living playing tennis."

Not everyone felt as strongly, or at least not enough to cast their fears aside. Notable absentees not just from Houston but by and large from the Virginia Slims Series that followed in 1971 included Margaret Court, Virginia Wade and Evonne Goolagong. Influenced by her father's loyalties to the national association Chris Evert, still a schoolgirl, also stuck with a rival circuit mounted by the USLTA.

Their fears were not unfounded, for the rebels did suffer consequences: The two Australians in the group, Dalton and Melville Reid, were forced out of their national championships, for instance. Dalton - runner-up to Casals at Houston - was prevented from using her Slazenger racquet for two years.

Still, so pleased was Virginia Slims with the whole spectacle that in 1971 its sponsorship skyrocketed to $250,000 across 24 tournaments. It was a politically fraught time but, helped by the company's marketing savvy - and a massive group effort to promote their nascent circuit - the Slims women ultimately won the PR battle. In 1973 the rival circuits merged, and differences were put aside. For the first time, all of the top women would present a united front; the Tour hasn't looked back since.

"Today's players are living our vision," King says. "In 1970, and even a few years after we signed the $1 contract with Gladys, people never believed women's tennis would be a global sport and that players would be making the money they make today. But it is a reality and I know today's players will continue our dreams for future generations."

And what of the next 40 years?

"Growth in the future may very well be tied to the WTA's current plans, which focuses on a better schedule and more combined events with the men's tour," King says. "We are committed to what we started in 1970 and making women's tennis the best product possible. Women's sports have to work harder to garner the support.

She adds: "The WTA Tour has beat all of the odds, but we still need to thrive and maintain our leadership position. If we do that we also will inspire other women's sports to be true leaders as well. It is not only important for us to shape the future of women's tennis, it is important for us to play a vital role in the development of sports."

Click here for full results of the 1970 Virginia Slims Invitational in Houston.

In Her Own Words: Rosie Casals
In Her Own Words: Judy Dalton
In Her Own Words: Julie Heldman
In Her Own Words: Kristy Pigeon
In Her Own Words: Kerry Melville Reid
In Her Own Words: Nancy Richey
In Her Own Words: Valerie Ziegenfuss

- Adam Lincoln

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