The WTA Insider Podcast continues with our series on the 50th anniversary of the Original 9, who came together on September 23rd in 1970 to sign a one-dollar contract with promoter and World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman to form the first women's professional tour, a precursor to the WTA which was formed three years later.
As Billie Jean King has said, “Without Gladys Heldman, there wouldn't be women's professional tennis. She was a passionate advocate for women tennis players and, as the driving force behind the start of the Virginia Slims Tour in 1970, she helped change the face of women's sports." Thanks to our friends at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, we are excited to share an incredibly incisive radio interview with Gladys Heldman herself, which was done during her induction to the Hall of Fame in 1979.
Born in New York in 1922, Heldman was an integral figure in the growth and survival of not just women's professional tennis, but tennis as a whole. She graduated at the top of her class from Stanford and went on to get her master's degree a year later at the University of California, Berkeley. Heldman did not pick up a tennis racquet until she was 23-years-old, but her love of the sport came quickly and never relented. She went on to found the influential World Tennis Magazine in 1953 would become one of the most important behind the scenes operators in the sport. Heldman passed away in 2003.
Once again, thank you to the International Tennis Hall of Fame sharing this incredible piece of tennis history, It's one thing to read about Gladys Heldman's accomplishments and hear her contemporaries describe her independent, feisty, ambitious character. It's so much more meaningful to hear it all from Gladys herself, a dynamic, charismatic, powerful woman who left an indelible mark on the sport.
Selected highlights from Heldman's interview:
On organizing the Virginia Slims Invitational in Houston, Texas:
I told the women players involved and this was Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, my daughter, Julie, Kerry Melville, Nancy Ritchey, to come to Houston and if we couldn't hold the tournament, I would at least reimburse them for their transportation. So they came in. They came in, the stands had been erected, the tickets had been sold, the Houston Racket Club was excited about the tournament, and here we weren't sure we were going to have it. We weren't sure how we could get a sanction.
What was happening was the sanction for the first time in the history of tennis was being used as a club. If they didn't give us the sanction, then it was a club to say you can't play. If they didn't give us the sanction and the women played anyway, they would be suspended. So would the club and so with the members of the club, so with the ball boys, and so with the umpires. So it was quite a weapon that the USLTA had. In those days - because this isn't true today. Today, the USTA favors women's pro tennis and has been extremely helpful financially. In those days, the USLTA was quite chauvinistic and of the 80 odd members of the executive committee, 100 hundred percent were male. And I would say a great many were elderly males and that all of them preferred to see men on the center court and women playing on the backcourts at 9:00 in the morning.
On the iconic One Dollar Photo and what happened next:
The deal that was offered to me by the sanctions committee of the USLTA was that we could hold a tournament if it were an amateur event and if the prize money were paid under the table. I thought it only fair to present this to the eight women players, which I did. And there was a great discussion. None of them wanted to take the money under the table. They were pros, but they were at that time a special kind of pro. If you were a contract pro, and there were no women contract pros in the U.S. at that time, you could play anywhere and you didn't require a sanction. Some of the men were contract pros. They'd signed to George McCall and they'd signed to Lamar Hunt. Lamar Hunt could play at any club and the club couldn't be suspended and he didn't have to have a sanction.
So I said to the women players, let's protect the Racquet Club and its members. You sign to me for one week for one dollar and you'll be contract pros. So they agreed. I paid them each a dollar and we went out to announce this to the press. It was all taken place in one hour. The tournament was to begin in five minutes. A picture was taken of all of us, the women holding up their one dollar. And my daughter said to me as she received her dollar, Does this mean I have to do the dishes?
We thought we pulled a fast one on the USLTA. Within 48 hours, all the women had received telegrams announcing that they were suspended, that they could no longer play for their country.
On the subsequent formation of the Virginia Slims Tour in 1971:
There had never been a prize money winter circuit for the women. The men were playing every week for $50,000 and the women were not even playing. There weren't any tournaments. There was one tournament in Boston called the National Indoors in this whole season from October until March. And the total prize money for that season was $2,500 for everybody.
So I got in touch with Ann Jones and with Francoise Durr and with some very good Australians, Kerry Melville and Karen Krantzcke. I said, we will have tournaments where the prize money will be no less than $10,000 a week. And I guarantee you ten tournaments in a two and a half month season. If by any chance I can't get these ten tournaments at $10,000 each, I am financially responsible to you. I must pay you that money. But I will try to get the sponsors.
In turn, you must commit to me that if you sign to play, you don't have to play every week if you're sick or if you're stale or tired, but you can't play anywhere else and you can't play an exhibition anywhere else. Because if I commit your name to a sponsor and you play an exhibition that week somewhere else, I look foolish and I have no muscle and we're not a group. So they did make the agreement.