Michigan native Jane ‘Peaches’ Bartkowicz was 21 when she signed up to play in Gladys Heldman’s controversial Virginia Slims Invitational. After a stellar junior career that brought countless national crowns as well as the Wimbledon girls’ singles title aged 15, Bartkowicz went on to capture back-to-back singles and doubles titles at Cincinnati in 1966-67, win the Canadian Open in 1968, and twice reach the quarterfinals at the US Open.
A member of the victorious US Fed Cup side in 1969, she left the Tour in 1971, with wins over Evonne Goolagong and Virginia Wade under her belt.
Peaches reflects: “My family couldn’t afford tennis lessons – my father worked on an assembly line at a car factory – but I lived next to a park with public courts and when I was young, I found a racquet in the bushes. There was a wall and I would hit against it all the time. I was determined, and I became very accurate and that was probably always my greatest strength. It helped me because I wasn’t as naturally talented as a lot of the other players, and not so fast around the court!
“I was supported as a junior but later, the cost of traveling to events was a real issue. I remember going to Europe, winning the first six tournaments I played – and actually losing money. It was a no brainer that something had to be done, so when Houston came up, I didn’t hesitate at all, especially with Gladys Heldman behind it. She owned a tennis magazine, 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 was confident that she knew what she was doing.
“When you team up someone like Gladys with Virginia Slims and you’ve got people like Billie Jean and Rosie and Nancy, I don’t think you can go wrong. We were most concerned with the situation in tennis, obviously, but at the same time we felt change had to happen in other areas of society too. 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.
“I knew it would be hard, I knew it would take time, but I truly never thought the new circuit would fail. I always thought it was going to be really big. However, while I loved playing tennis, I found the promotional side of things very tough. I was shy and I didn’t deal with the public that well… it was one of the reasons I left the game so young. As I got older, I opened up more and I’d think, why couldn’t I have been like this before? But now I don’t have regrets. I have a wonderful family – everything worked out.”
Interview by Adam Lincoln.