The daughter of whirlwind tennis impresario Gladys Heldman, Julie Heldman was 25 years old when she signed up as a dollar-bill contract pro in support of her mother’s trailblazing Virginia Slims Invitational tournament in Houston. During her career, the Stanford graduate captured more than 20 singles titles, including the Italian Open in 1969, as well as gold, silver and bronze medals at the Olympic demonstration event in Mexico City in 1968. A three-time Grand Slam singles semifinalist, she peaked at No.5 in the rankings and was a member of two victorious US Fed Cup teams.
Julie reflects: “I don't think any of us were really talking about equal rights at Houston. We were talking about the right to make a living, and that first year or so was about setting ourselves up in our own world. It didn’t take long for me to tie it into the bigger picture, however, because we had women come out all over in support of us.
“We would stay in people’s homes and the women would approach us and say, ‘My marriage is falling apart, I can see that you are new women… can we talk about it?’ Everything was changing mightily at this time – it was the tail end of the '60s, and we were looked to as harbingers of a new world.
“At the start, the fear that we would be banned from the Grand Slams was very real. The tension was clear – everybody’s life was going to be turned upside down. The male tennis players were against us. The tennis establishment was against us – remember, there were no women administrators back then. It was a matter of leaping into a complete unknown. Players had to make their own decisions. My decision was in favor of solidarity.
“That’s my abiding memory of that time: the sense of solidarity and a step forward. I couldn’t play at Houston because I had an elbow injury. My parents had just moved to the city from New York, and I was in the new house manning the phones the night before the tournament was due to start. The women were calling and saying the USLTA was threatening to suspend everybody. The morning the event was due to start, I didn't go to the site because I wasn’t playing. But when I heard the other players were taking a stand, I decided I would do the same, even if it meant being suspended too.
“Crazy things would happen on the new circuit. A newspaper would send out the fashion reporter instead of the sports reporter. We had to explain to them how the scoring worked, what a backhand was. But I didn’t see the off-court stuff as a distraction. It was simply putting in our time for something we were all working for. We needed to do it. We all had to go to cocktail parties and do clinics and go on TV and talk to journalists, because that was the way we were going to get the tour started.”
Interview by Adam Lincoln.