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, the gulf in prize money offered to men compared to women only grew. Adding insult to injury, there were no tournaments where the women could shine on their own terms; typically they were relegated to the outside courts.
The situation came to a head in the summer of 1970 when the prestigious Pacific Southwest event proposed a pay ratio of 8:1 in favor of the men. Some of the game’s biggest names envisaged a better future and so they joined forces with World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman, a potent advocate with supportive business contacts like Joe Cullman, the chairman of Philip Morris.
Facing tennis establishment threats that they would be banned from playing Grand Slam tournaments and lose their national rankings, nine women took a leap of faith. On September 23, 1970 they signed $1 contracts with Heldman to compete in the groundbreaking Virginia Slims Invitational at the Houston Racquet Club.
The Original 9, as they would come to be known, comprised Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Julie Heldman, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon and Valerie Ziegenfuss. Casals defeated Dalton in the final of the Houston event, which boasted a total prize purse of $7,500. But they had all played a part in proving a winning formula.
Buoyed by the success of Houston, Heldman and Cullman promptly announced a series of tournaments around the United States in 1971, under the Virginia Slims banner. Traditional events had to raise their game or risk fading away, and the momentum led to the formation of the WTA in 1973. Women’s tennis hasn’t looked back.
JANE ‘PEACHES’ BARTKOWICZ was 21 when she signed her $1 contract to play at the Houston Invitational in 1970. After a stellar junior career that saw her win countless national titles as well as the Wimbledon girls’ singles title as a 15-year-old, Bartkowicz went on to post wins over the likes of Virginia Wade and Evonne Goolagong, reaching the quarters at the US Open in 1968 and 1969, and winning the Canadian Open in 1968. A member of the victorious US Fed Cup side in 1969, she initially retired in 1971, before returning briefly to the tour and World Team Tennis in 1974.
"It was a no brainer that something had to be done so when Houston came up, I didn’t hesitate – especially with Gladys Heldman behind it," she says. "She owned a tennis magazine, was female, and her daughter Julie played, so I knew she was interested in all of us. To be honest, I was sort of intimidated by Gladys. She was a very forceful woman, but very nice and I knew she knew what she was doing. I came to see that if you do it in tennis, or in business, or wherever, there can be a domino effect and in the long run you’ll help everybody."
Ranked a career-high No.3 in 1970, ROSIE CASALS was 22 when she defeated Judy Dalton in the final of the Virginia Slims Invitational at Houston. Winner of 11 professional singles titles, she reached two Grand Slam finals, both at the US Open, falling to Court in 1970 and to Billie Jean King in 1971. Her haul of 112 doubles titles, including five Wimbledon crowns with King among nine Grand Slam wins, ranks second only to Martina Navratilova; she also won three mixed doubles majors. A member of seven winning US Fed Cup teams, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1996.
"Jeopardizing the chance to play Grand Slams was probably the riskiest part of going against the old establishment," she says. "What else were we risking? We were really second-class citizens when we played at the sanctioned tournaments alongside the men – and that meant all tournaments. In that sense we didn’t have a lot to lose. On the other hand, the Grand Slams were everything to us at that time. It wasn’t just about money, it was about recognition, being given places to play and being paid fairly for something you did well."
JUDY DALTON was 32 when she was runner-up to Rosie Casals at the Virginia Slims Invitational in Houston. During her career Dalton (née Tegart) won nine Grand Slam doubles titles (including five with Margaret Court), earning her career Grand Slam. In singles, she reached the Wimbledon final in 1968, upsetting Court and Nancy Richey before succumbing to Billie Jean King. From Wimbledon in 1967 until her retirement at 40 after the 1977 Australian Open, Dalton reached at least the quarters in 10 of 20 majors played. She was a member of two victorious Fed Cup squads.
"The politicking in tennis was really hard, but when we signed the $1 contracts we knew it was the right thing to do," she says. "I’d help circulate a questionnaire at the US Open, which asked for the public’s views on women’s tennis. Some male fans actually said they enjoyed it more because they could associate their own games with the longer rallies. I just think it’s terrific there are players from so many countries now. I don’t think we really could have dreamed tennis would become such an international sport."
Gladys Heldman's daughter, JULIE HELDMAN, was 25 in 1970. During her career she won 25 titles, including the Italian Open, reached three Grand Slam singles semifinals, and peaked at No.2 in the United States in 1969 (No.5 in the world.) She was a member of three victorious Fed Cup teams before leaving the tour in 1975.
"The tension was clear – everyone’s life was going to be turned upside down," she says. "The men tennis players were against us. The tennis administrators were against us – remember, there were no women tennis administrators back then."
Affectionately known as the Old Lady, BILLIE JEAN KING was not even 27 when she took on the role of ringleader at Houston in 1970. By this point she had won five of her 12 Grand Slam singles titles (among 39 majors overall) and spent time as No.1 in both singles and doubles. Yet she was far from done, on court or off. While figuring as a political force, it was during the first half of the 1970s that King was at the peak of her playing powers. In 1971 alone – the first full Virginia Slims season – she won 17 singles titles and became the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money in a single year. In 1973 she beat Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes and became founding president of the WTA.
"We knew that to really have a future, we had to have a tour, or a series of tournaments," she says. "We had no idea what was going to happen but we had the dream, the vision. We wanted every little girl in the world to have the opportunity to play and, if she was good enough, make a living from tennis."
In 1970, NANCY RICHEY was a 28-year-old two-time Grand Slam singles champion, having won the 1967 Australian Open and 1968 Roland Garros – the first major of the Open Era. During her two-decade career the Texan won 69 singles titles and ranked as high at No.2 in 1969. She also won four Grand Slam doubles titles. Richey retired after the 1978 US Open at the age of 36 and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2003.
"I knew tennis back in the amateur days when we had to take the subway from Midtown out to Forest Hills carrying our bags, then take the subway back, the bags weighing 50 pounds more full of wet tennis clothes," she says. "No money, no lunchroom, nothing. Now the players are playing for millions, the women get equal prize money and the game has grown. I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Every time I walk into Flushing Meadows I hug myself, because it’s what we dreamed would happen in our game."
KERRY MELVILLE REID was 23 when she played at Houston in 1970. Among 22 singles titles won during her career she won her home Grand Slam, the Australian Open, in 1977. A further 40 finals included the Aussie Open in 1970, and in 1972 both the US Open and the nascent Virginia Slims Tour's first season-ending championships – the event now known as the WTA Finals. A Top 10 regular throughout the Seventies, she won three doubles majors, including 1978 Wimbledon with Wendy Turnbull.
"I wanted a better deal, of course, but I wouldn’t put myself in the feminist category," she says. "I think my parents were a little concerned, but I felt we had a strong leader in Billie Jean – she was a top player and she was powerful. As the two Australians in the Original 9, Judy Dalton and I were banned from playing at home for a while, but everything turned out fine. Some of the other girls took more time to come on board and I could understand – it was a big decision to make in your career."
The youngest member of the Original 9, KRISTY PIGEON was just 20 when she took a stand at the Virginia Slims Invitational in 1970. After winning the US Girls' title and junior Wimbledon, Pigeon went on to reach the Round of 16 of the ladies' singles at the All England Club in 1968 and 1969, and reached the US Top 10. She left the Tour in 1975, having represented the US in team competitions and won the Welsh Open.
"I went to schools in Oakland and Berkeley that promoted huge feminist attitudes… I remember Betty Frieden coming to give a lecture. But I think a lot of those true original feminists were missing the point," she says. "In a way, they didn’t make nearly as many waves as we tennis players did. We demonstrated that as sportspeople we were as interesting as the men. Our competition was stimulating to watch and could pull the people in. For me, that’s a more powerful way of establishing equality."
VALERIE ZIEGENFUSS was 21 in 1970. In singles, she reached the Round of 16 at three Grand Slams, and one final on the fledgling tour, at the Virginia Slims of Oklahoma in 1972. She ranked as high as No.7 in the United States in singles, and was the top-ranked doubles player in 1967.
"I played 14 out of 16 weeks but I can’t complain – we wanted our own circuit, so somebody had to do it!" she says. "The responsibility of promotion came with that but I enjoyed it and I think I was good at it. We all pitched in, we all did what we could do to advance the circuit. And we got to enjoy some glamor thanks to Teddy Tinling. He made me a black velvet halter with rhinestones along the neckline, which went with a silver lamé skirt. It was designed to be worn under the lights in a sports arena and it was gorgeous."
Read more: The Gladys Heldman Story