The razor-sharp daughter of a New York lawyer and judge, Gladys Heldman cared very deeply about tennis – so much so, that after taking up the sport at the ripe old age of 25 she became the No.1 player in Texas, competed in the US National Championships several times, and even made it to Wimbledon in 1954.
But it was off court that she was to make her real impact on the sport.
In 1953 Heldman, already the mother of two young girls, founded World Tennis magazine. The venture started out as a one-woman show but with the support and encouragement of her husband, Julius – himself a leading amateur player in the 1930s and 40s – Heldman grew her publication into one of the most influential forums in sports.
Indeed, such was her drive and influence, Heldman would go on to play a central role in creating women’s professional tennis as we still recognize it today.
The tipping point came in September, 1970 when the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles proposed to pay the men’s field eight times more than the women.
Approached by star players Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Nancy Richey as they searched for a response, Heldman advised against a boycott of the LA tournament. Instead, she convinced the Houston Tennis Association and the Texas LTA to back the Houston Racquet Club in hosting an alternative, eight-woman event.
The initial $5,000 prize money purse was to come from Heldman’s own pocket and ticket sales to women’s groups associated with tennis in the city. Heldman then persuaded her friend Joe Cullman, chairman of tobacco giant Philip Morris, to pitch in $2,500 – taking the total pool to $7,500. Crucially, this contribution secured naming rights for Virginia Slims, a new cigarette brand for women that Philip Morris was looking to promote.
Meantime, Heldman recruited players, who each signed a $1 contract with her company to become a ‘World Tennis Professional’ – which provided a measure of legal protection for everyone involved in this new, unsanctioned experiment.
Along with King, Casals and Richey, the renegade group included Peaches Bartkowicz, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Heldman’s daughter, Julie, who was suffering tennis elbow, but signed up in solidarity and played a symbolic one-point match against King.
Besides dealing with the fraught politics on the sidelines, Casals defeated Dalton in the competition’s final, taking home a winner’s cheque of $1,600.
More than that, the event made such a splash that the players voted to support Heldman in her efforts to build on the week’s momentum, and Virginia Slims agreed to back the first fully-fledged circuit for women in 1971.
With 21 events around the United States offering $336,100 – instantly doubling total prize money available to women around the world that year – the circuit meant a lot of hard work and grind for all involved. But as more and more players jumped on board, the Virginia Slims Circuit also forced traditional tournaments to up their games.
“When I accepted that $1 contract from Gladys more than 30 years ago, I knew we were all part of something special and that women’s tennis had been changed forever because of her vision,” said King. “Without Gladys, there wouldn’t be women’s professional tennis.”
“Gladys was a woman in a business that was primarily men," said Casals. “She was respected. She was extremely bright. She had great connections, and she was taken seriously when she went to represent us in boardrooms.
“She was ballsy. She said, ‘Hey, this is the way it’s gonna be. You wanna ride with me, come along, I'll pay you broads a dollar and make you contracts.’ Nine of us said yes, and it was the right decision to make.”
Due, in part, to her strong, polarizing personality, Heldman became something of a ‘sacrificial lamb’ – King's words – when the Slims circuit and a rival women’s series mounted by the USLTA finally merged in 1973, shortly before the formation of the WTA.
But although she was bargained out of the running of the new-look tour, she had done enough to ensure her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame six years later.
“She was the whirlwind without whom the tour would not have happened,” said Julie Heldman, rightfully proud. “She put the whole thing together. She got the main sponsor. She found promoters for each of the local tournaments and helped them get local sponsors. She got the women to sign up."
While her public persona has been described as indomitable, Heldman spent an estimated $30,000 helping struggling players in those early days, and members of the Original 9 recall a softer side as well.
“She liked the aggressive way that I played and I think she saw similarities between me and Julie, who also went to college,” recalled Pigeon, the youngest member of the Original 9.
“Gladys would take me out to lunch – she took me under her wing. Later, I went to visit her at her home in Santa Fe and I attended her 80th birthday. We'd talk about my non-profit work and her philanthropic ventures – I'm still amazed at the creativity of her thinking.”
Dalton, one of two Australians in the Original 9, remembers the long-distance support Heldman provided during the period after Houston, when she was prevented from playing by her national association, or even using her usual tennis racquet brand.
“Gladys would send telegrams and even call – remember, phoning overseas was still a big deal back then,” Dalton said. “She’d tell me to keep my spirits up and reassure me everything would work out."
And from Ziegenfuss, a confession: "I was always a little intimidated by her. She was so funny and had a brilliant mind. She used to tease, and I would be a little unsure whether she was just joking or she was for real!
"But she was also a great hostess. We’d have spaghetti dinners on the opening evenings of the US Open. Wow, what can I say about Gladys? Just special. There’s only one Gladys.”