In Her Own Words: Francoise Durr
Published January 07, 2011 12:00
Although she wasn't one of the Original Nine - she couldn't be in Houston because she was playing her Nationals in France - Algeria-born Francoise Durr was one of the original pros: In 1968 she joined Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Ann Jones in George McCall's National Tennis League, alongside the men. But, like her colleagues, she was aggrieved by the increasing marginalization of the women's game by the establishment around this time. So when the inaugural Virginia Slims Series circuit kicked off in San Francisco in January, 1971, the unorthodox 'Frankie' was there with bells on.
"The first Virginia Slims tournament in 1971, the BMC Invitation, was run by Larry King, Billie Jean's husband, and Jerry Diamond, who would later become CEO of the WTA but worked for a British car company at the time. The event went very well. Most of the players stayed with local families to save money... and to ensure we had some supporters. I remember one night, my doubles partner Judy Dalton and I stopped off at a diner on our way back to the place we were staying. It was 1am and we looked at one another, not knowing whether to order dinner or an early breakfast!
"Having California girls like Rosie and Billie Jean certainly helped bring people along to see the matches that week, but in the beginning of the circuit it was hard to get people to come to watch us. We had always played the tournaments with the men, who got all the attention. Bill Cutler and Ellen Merlo, executives from Philip Morris, traveled with us. They knew little about tennis, but were great marketing people, which was the key to our getting off to such a great start.
"We started our new venture with 16 players and nobody to replace one of us if anyone was sick. I remember one time in Akron, Ohio, Billie Jean and I stood in front of the Kmart and gave tickets away for the matches that night. People did not know women's tennis, but if we could get them in one time, they would usually come back. Most of the club players liked to see the women play because they could relate to playing like us!
"We certainly played in some challenging environments in those early days. One time we played in a gymnasium in Long Beach, and it was so short and low we could not go back too far, as you would hit the back wall with your racquet. If you lobbed, you would hit the ceiling. So your best bet was to rush to the net. Another time, in Oklahoma, I was very surprised at dinner to see my host greeting guests carrying brown bags with bottles of wine inside. It was a 'dry' state. Such a shock for a French person!
"In 1972, I was based in New York and bought an Airedale, Topspin. She traveled all over America with me. At that time we did not have people traveling with the players and it could get very lonely. She was happy to see me when I won or when I lost. The only toy she had was my racquets, and that's how she came to carry my racquets on the court when I was playing doubles. She was the first pet in the dressing room, but I had to put a headband on her saying "please do not feed me", because the players always wanted to give her cookies!
"Since we were professionals, I thought we should present ourselves very nicely on the court, and thanks to Ted Tinling, who designed different dresses for the players, we were able to do that. Once, playing on the centre court of Wimbledon, I took off my sweater after the warm-up and there was a big silence in the stadium. Teddy had made me a halter backless dress - shocking, my dear! When I played my 100th Virginia Slims tournament in Detroit in 1978, he designed a dress with 100 VS all around… you don't see things like that today, though fortunately the dresses are coming back.
"My big strength was my physical conditioning and tenacity - and with my funny grip, a lot of people could not read me well. It came about because I had started to play without a coach and practiced against my garage door or the wall at the club - the young people could not go on the court. When I finally did have a coach and a court to play on, it was too late to change my grip, even though it meant I would practically kneel or even sit on the court to hit some shots! But I used my index finger on my left hand on a lot of things. When my daughter started to play, she used her index on the racquet.
"Of course I told her this was a big no no!
"The best match I played was against Chris Evert, but funnily enough I lost it. It was the final of the Colgate Championships in 1976 in Palms Springs. She was the hardest to beat - she was playing like me… but a lot better. I really do think the game is stronger now, but all the same, I would like to see more variety such as short cross court balls, drop shots and normal volleys. Players like Justine Henin and Francesca Schiavone are too rare, but I also like to watch Kim Clijsters, and of course Federer and Nadal.
"Billie Jean played 25 tournaments that first year, and became the first female athlete to win $100,000 (I finished second on the prize money list). Two years later we created the WTA in a London hotel, and women's tennis has never been the same. Being a part of this was the most fun I ever had… and I got paid for it. We really had came a long way, baby. Vive le tennis!"
Frankie's Career Highlights:
Won French Open singles in 1967, also won seven doubles majors and four in mixed…altogether won 26 singles titles and 42 doubles titles…ranked in world's Top 10 nine times between 1965 and 1976, peaking at No.3 …played last official match at Roland Garros in 1984…later served as captain of French Fed Cup Team… inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2003.