Billie Jean King was 26 when she took on the role of ringleader among the Original 9 as they allied with Gladys Heldman to usurp the apathy of the male-dominated tennis establishment. By this point in her career, the American icon had won five of her 12 Grand Slam singles titles (among 39 majors overall) and spent time as No.1 in singles and doubles. While figuring as a political force, it was during the first half of the 1970s that King was also at the peak of her playing powers. In 1973 she defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes and became founding president of the WTA.
Billie Jean reflects:
“The birth of women’s professional tennis, as we know it today, occurred at 3pm. Central Time on Wednesday, September 23, 1970 at the Houston Racquet Club in Texas, when the Original 9 signed a $1 contract with Gladys Heldman.
“The Original 9 included seven Americans and two Australians – Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Nancy Richey, Julie Heldman, Peaches Bartkowicz. Kristy Pigeon and me.
“I was very scared and very excited, and I think the others felt the same way… we had no idea what was going to happen. We just knew we had the dream, the vision.
“First, we wanted any girl born in the world, if she was good enough, to have a place to compete. Second, we wanted women to be recognized for their accomplishments, not only their looks. And finally, and the most important thing, we wanted for ourselves and future generations to be able to make a living playing professional tennis. That's why we were willing to take the risk and cross the line in the sand when we signed our $1 contracts.
“The Houston event was really so tiny, but it ended up being a week of very important discussions. After the matches we'd go to Gladys Heldman's home and sit in a semi-circle in her bedroom, trying to figure out how we were going to shape the future. When Rosie Casals won that first tournament, we knew that to really have a future, we had to have a tour, or a series of tournaments. We worked out that our realistic market value at that time was a minimum of $10,000 a week in total prize money per event.
“We were thinking globally, even then. And we were also talking way beyond sport; we were talking about changes in society. Remember, we were well into the second wave of the women’s movement at this time. We were hearing a lot in the media and in daily life and getting to understand the facts better – what we had, what we didn't have, as women.
“We were very fortunate with the timing, and I think we made a lot of it happen ourselves. All the stars were in alignment: Gladys, Philip Morris, the nine of us ready to take the leap of faith and then have others join us to do everything we could to promote our sport.
“It’s absolutely amazing, if you look back and see how we went from no tournaments and no infrastructure to a full series in three months. We spent every ounce of our being to make our vision a reality, but we had a great sense of humor and we were able to keep laughing. I don't think we would have made it otherwise, because it helped us stay together.
“What we started 50 years ago is alive and well today and the players on the WTA Tour are living our dream.”
Interview by Adam Lincoln