Valerie Ziegenfuss was 21 when she signed up to compete in Gladys Heldman’s groundbreaking Virginia Slims Invitational at Houston in September, 1970. In the course of her career the San Diego native reached the round of 16 at three majors – the US Open in 1969 and 1975, and Roland Garros in 1972. On the nascent Virginia Slims Circuit she reached the final at Oklahoma in 1972, where it took Rosie Casals to stop her. A four-time Grand Slam semifinalist in doubles, twice at Wimbledon and twice at the US Open, she won six titles in the team discipline.
Valerie reflects: “I remember not knowing what the tournament in Houston would lead to. There was a worry we were sticking our necks out and could be banned from playing tournaments. But overall, I really believed in Billie Jean as our leader and I really believed in Gladys Heldman as our promoter. And I liked women's tennis: I believed in our product.
“For me at that time, it was about equal opportunity to play more than equal prize money. I felt we deserved that because we brought the people in. We had such great feedback. People would say, 'Oh, we like watching you girls, the rallies are so much
longer.' I almost think the situation has switched now; with the heavier balls and slower courts the top men are playing longer rallies!
“I think I played 14 out of 16 weeks at one point but I can't complain – we wanted our own tour, so somebody had to do it! The responsibility of promotion came with that, but I enjoyed it and I feel that I was good at it. We all pitched in, we all did what we could do to advance our circuit and that created a real bond, a nice sisterhood. When the nine of us get together we look at each other and go, 'Oh, wow, look what we started!'
“It was a different time, but we got to enjoy some glamor thanks to Teddy Tinling. He made me a black velvet halter dress 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. Another skirt was covered in sequins… it was a little heavy to play in!
“My best moments were in doubles and playing for my country in Fed Cup and Wightman Cup. I was an all-court player, and my strength was my physical game. But I think I would have been much better in this day and age, because I would have been able to pay for a coach! I would have had my father, George, there in a heartbeat.”
Interview by Adam Lincoln.