Gladys Heldman's trailblazing contribution to women's tennis is remembered in the film 'Battle of the Sexes', in which Sarah Silverman portrays her
Adam Lincoln
September 21, 2017

The daughter of a New York lawyer and judge, Gladys Heldman cared deeply about tennis – so much so that after taking up the sport at the ripe old age of 25 she became the No.1 player in Texas, competed in the US National Championships four times, and even made it to Wimbledon in 1954.

But it was off-court that she was to make her real mark, to such an extent, her contribution has been immortalized by Sarah Silverman in the film 'Battle of the Sexes'.

In 1953 Heldman, mother to two young girls, Carrie and Julie, founded World Tennis magazine. The venture started out as a one-woman show but with the full encouragement of her husband Julius – himself a leading amateur player in the 1930s and 40s – Heldman grew her publication into one of the most influential forums in sports.

Indeed, such was her drive and influence, Heldman would play a key role in creating a women's professional tennis tour. The tipping point came in September, 1970 when the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles proposed to pay the men eight times more than the women players.

Approached by Billie Jean King and other leading players looking for a solution, Heldman convinced the Houston Tennis Association and the Texas LTA to back the Houston Racquet Club in hosting an eight-woman event.

Gladys Heldman (International Tennis Hall of Fame)
Gladys Heldman (International Tennis Hall of Fame)

The initial $5,000 purse was to come from Heldman’s own pocket and ticket sales to women's groups associated with tennis in the city. Heldman then persuaded her friend Joe Cullman, chairman of tobacco giant Philip Morris, to provide an additional $2,500 – taking the total pool to $7,500.

This contribution secured naming rights for Virginia Slims, a new cigarette brand for women that Philip Morris was looking to promote.

Heldman recruited players who each signed a $1 contract with her company to become a ‘World Tennis Professional’. More than symbolic, this protected the tennis club from any lawsuit the tennis establishment might launch. Heldman’s daughter Julie was suffering tennis elbow, but signed the contract in support of the eight other players and played a symbolic one-point ‘match’ against King.

Rosie Casals defeated Judy Dalton in the final, taking home a winner’s cheque of $1,600.

The event made such a splash that Virginia Slims agreed to back a fully fledged circuit in 1971, featuring some 21 events around the United States, worth more than $336,100 – essentially doubling the total global prize pool available to women around the world that year, and forcing other traditional events to lift their offerings.

Original 9 recreation, 2012
'Original 9' reunited in 2012 (clockwise from top left): Valerie Ziegenfuss, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Julie Heldman (daughter of Gladys), Rosie Casals, Kerry Melville and Judy Dalton

"Without Gladys, there wouldn't be women's professional tennis," said Billie Jean King upon Heldman's death in 2003, at the age of 81. "When I accepted that $1 contract from Gladys more than 30 years ago, I knew we were all part of something special and that women's tennis had been changed forever because of her vision."

"Gladys was a woman in a business that was primarily men," observes Casals, on the 40th anniversary of the dollar-bill rebellion. "She was respected. She was extremely bright. She had great connections, and she was taken seriously when she went to represent us in boardrooms.

"She was ballsy. She said, 'Hey, this is the way it's gonna be. You wanna ride with me, come along, I'll pay you broads a dollar and make you contracts.' Nine of us said yes, and it was the right decision to make."

Due in part to her strong, polarizing personality, Heldman became something of a ‘sacrificial lamb’ – King's words – when the Slims circuit and a rival women's circuit mounted by the USLTA finally merged in 1973. But although she was bargained out of the running of the new-look tour, Heldman had done enough to ensure her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame six years later.

"She was the whirlwind without whom the tour would not have happened," says daughter Julie Heldman, rightfully proud. "She put the whole thing together. She got the main sponsor. She found promoters for each of the local tournaments and helped them get local sponsors. She got the women to sign up."

While her public persona has been described as indomitable, Heldman spent an estimated $30,000 helping struggling players in those early days, and members of the Original 9 recall a softer side as well.

"She liked the aggressive way I played and I think she saw similarities between me and Julie, who also went to college," recalls Kristy Pigeon. "Gladys would take me out to lunch – she took me under her wing. Later, I went to visit her at her home in Santa Fe and I attended her 80th birthday. We'd talk about my non-profit work and her philanthropic ventures – I'm still amazed at the creativity of her thinking."

Dalton, one of two Australians in the renegade group, remembers the long-distance support Heldman provided during the period after Houston, when she was prevented from playing by her national association, or even using her usual tennis racquet brand. 

"Gladys would send telegrams and even call – remember, phoning overseas was still a big deal back then. She'd tell me to keep my spirits up and reassure me everything would work out."

And from Valerie Ziegenfuss, a confession: "I was always a little intimidated by her. She was so funny and had a brilliant mind. She used to tease, and I would be a little unsure whether she was teasing me or she was for real!

"But she was also a great hostess," Ziegenfuss laughs. "We'd have spaghetti dinners on the opening evenings of the US Open. Wow, what can I say about Gladys? Just special. There's only one Gladys."

Read more: The women who changed tennis