Kristy Pigeon, the youngest member of the Original 9, was just 20 years old in September 1970 when she signed up with Gladys Heldman to compete at the Virginia Slims Invitational at Houston. 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 was ranked in the US Top 10. With a lefty game particularly suited to grass, her titles included the Welsh Open, a Wimbledon tune-up, and the Pennsylvania Lawn Tennis Championships. She competed on the nascent tour until the mid-1970s.
Kristy reflects: “I went to Mills College in Oakland, later transferring to UC Berkeley. Both schools promoted huge feminist attitudes; I remember Betty Frieden coming to give a lecture. But I think a lot of those original true feminists were missing the point by burning bras. 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 we could pull the people in. For me, that’s a more powerful way of establishing equality.
“I had no trepidation about being a part of Houston Invitational. I felt it was the right move – setting a precedent that needed to happen. At one point I was nominated to send Joe Cullman at Philip Morris a letter, asking him if he’d be interested in helping us. He was very positive, and of course a close friend of Gladys Heldman. I give a lot of credit to Gladys in the whole process – she was the visionary, as far as I am concerned.
“It was incredibly hard work, as we all pitched in to build respect and awareness for women’s tennis – to win over new fans. But, a lot of funny things happened on the Virginia Slims Circuit that first year. As it became more professional, we went from staying with people affiliated with tennis clubs or women’s groups to renting cars and staying in hotels. Basically, it was just us girls travelling around.
“The one thing that came out for me was the voraciousness of women competitors... I think women are more competitive than men! Once, in Kansas City, we were staying at a Holiday Inn and sharing four cars – four players for one car. Girls would hide the keys so the rest of us couldn’t get around. Lots of squabbles but also great camaraderie; good times.
“When I can, I still watch tennis on TV. I think the tour has exceeded anything we ever thought would happen. Of course, there have been players along the way that have carried on what we started and having great rivalries in the sport – like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova – obviously helped a lot. As a young girl, I was enamored with Gussy Moran, so I was just dying to have a pair of Teddy Tinling bloomers when I was playing. My life is a lot different now, but I still keep them in my drawer today.”
Interview by Adam Lincoln