On This Day: First Virginia Slims Series Begins

The first Virginia Slims circuit gave young women like Valerie Ziegenfuss a chance to make a living from tennis.

Published January 06, 2011 12:00

On This Day: First Virginia Slims Series Begins
Original Nine member Valerie Ziegenfuss, pictured in a Ted Tinling tennis dress, was a Virginia Slims regular from the beginning.

FLASHBACK: January 6, 1971

After the success of the Original Nine's anti-Establishment stand on September 23, 1970, things moved quickly for the new breed of women tennis pros. Each night during that first tournament at Houston they had met at the home of Gladys Heldman, the promoter who'd signed them to $1 contracts, to discuss their vision for the future. They worked out how much prize money was needed for competition to be viable for all competitors, not just the big stars. They also decided World Tennis publisher Heldman was the right person to help them move forward.

"We knew that to really have a future, we had to have a tour or a series of tournaments," recalls Billie Jean King, the players' powerbroker. "It was getting so there was no place for the women to play anymore. The men controlled all of the tournaments, and they really didn't want us to play, because we took some of the prize money if we played. And men were also in control of the tournaments, as promoters."

So at the bidding of the players, Heldman - who had secured backing from Philip Morris's Virginia Slims cigarette brand for that first Houston event - went back to her friend (and Philip Morris chairman) Joe Cullman III to see if his company would support a circuit of some kind. Delighted by the publicity splash from Houston, Cullman was happy to give the women what they needed: financial backing to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars, and the Virginia Slims name as title sponsor for a circuit in 1971.

"It is really mindboggling," says King of a logistical feat that saw a full-scale tour mounted barely three months after the Houston stand-off. "We had no infrastructure, and yet we got all sorts of people, promoters, to take a risk. The reason is because of the title sponsor - because there was some money up there - and that was because of Gladys and her contacts."

The first event, the $15,200 British Motor Cars Invitation, was held on a carpet court at San Francisco's Civic Auditorium, starting January 6. As well as eight of the Original Nine - only Julie Heldman, Gladys's daughter, was missing - the 16-player draw included the European stars Ann Jones, Francoise Durr and Betty Stove. King and her then-husband Larry actually owned the event in a consortium with four others, as well as the $14,000 BJ King Invitation held in the star's home town of Long Beach the following week. (The San Francisco event lives on as Stanford's Bank of the West Classic.)

After the "excruciating" tension of Houston, the mood in San Francisco was much better, King says. "The expectations were starting. We started to feel like it was our moment. Looking back now, the tournament in Houston was really a planning week for the future, getting together, taking that leap of faith. Otherwise, nothing was ever going to happen. We were lucky that there were nine of us who were prepared to do it."

For Rosie Casals, who lost to King in the final at San Francisco, the week was particularly special. "I remember going to the Civic Auditorium as a child, for the car show," says the Bay Area native. "It was extremely exciting to have such a wonderful facility to play in… we were accustomed to playing at country clubs and other traditional venues."

They had to work prodigiously hard to fill the seats, of course - and even harder to get the male-dominated media to take an interest. Casals adds: "I recall the stadium being pretty full, and certainly I had all my friends there, but I also remember going out onto the streets to give tickets away, just so people would have a chance to see if they liked what we had to offer. As for the journalists - they really acted like they had been relegated if they had to cover us."

Still, the women were on their way, and with the guiding hand of Virginia Slims' marketing experts, they got better and better at making their presence felt. With prize money from Virginia Slims and other sponsors totalling $309,100, the 1971 series took in 19 US cities, from the bright lights of Las Vegas to a field house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and ending at the Virginia Slims Thunderbird Championships in Phoenix in September.

"There were several really difficult tournament arenas that we played in, such as basketball stadiums with tennis lines painted over them, so it was hard to know where the ball landed," Judy Dalton, one of two Aussies among the Original Nine, remembers. "Roofs so low you couldn't lob. Experimenting with colored tennis balls, hoping we could see them better in poor light!"

But Dalton is quick to add they had a blast: from having tea with Jackie Kennedy's mother in the aristocratic environs of Newport to being snowed in with Frankie Durr at billet housing in Milwaukee - and only just being dug out in time for their doubles match.

By the end of 1971 some 40 players had signed up to the Slims universe. Though they would stick with the Establishment, players like Margaret Court, Virginia Wade, Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert made the odd foray onto the Slims circuit that first year as well, while the Slims stalwarts still played some of the almost 50 non-VS events that were also staged that year (including the majors). King reigned supreme on the Slims circuit, however, becoming the first woman athlete ever to earn $100,000 in a single year. It was an important milestone in the context of the burgeoning women's movement, and US President Nixon called King to offer his congratulations.

"We were very fortunate culturally with the timing, and I think we probably created some of it," says King. And yet the battle was far from won. Although the USLTA had lifted the suspensions it initially slapped on the American members of the Original Nine, which would have kept them out of the Grand Slams and Fed Cup, the truce was short-lived. The politicking continued, and it would be another three years before women's tennis became a truly unified force - under the Virginia Slims banner and fabulously appropriate advertising slogan, We've Come A Long Way, Baby!

"We had a heck of a time, starting everything, forging opportunities," reflects Casals, 40 years on. "The tour was really a place where we gathered and we would be sad to separate at the holidays. It was like being with family and friends. Going to dinner together, warming up with opponents. It was a very special time."

- Adam Lincoln

WTA Milestones: We Really Have Come A Long Way...
The Original Nine: Rebellion & Independence
> In Her Own Words: Francoise Durr

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