ST. PETERSBURG, FL, USA – The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) will pay tribute to the game-changing tennis professionals known as the Original 9 this month, five decades after they signed $1 contracts with legendary promoter Gladys Heldman to compete in a groundbreaking women-only tournament in Houston, Texas in September, 1970. That act, in defiance of the male-dominated tennis establishment of the era, is considered the birth of women’s professional tennis as fans around the world enjoy it today.
Focal point of the commemorations will be a virtual charity fundraiser, A Salute to the Original 9 & Gladys Heldman, staged by WTA Charities in association with the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative. Renowned broadcaster Mary Carillo will serve as host for the program on Wednesday, September 23, facilitating conversation and stories with Original 9 members along with special tributes and musical entertainment. Proceeds from this fundraiser will go to WTA Charities and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative and will be used in part to support COVID-19 relief efforts with a focus on women.
Instrumental support from the global tennis, business and charitable foundation communities has already ensured the success of the fundraiser. Valued contributors include the International Tennis Federation (ITF), Tennis Australia, French Tennis Federation (FFT), AELTC - Wimbledon and the United States Tennis Association (USTA). Generous donations have also been received from Altria Group, Anthem Foundation, Atria Senior Living, Brightstar Capital Partners, Centene Charitable Foundation, EY (Ernst and Young), Jeff Bezos, Jennifer and Jonathan Allan Soros Foundation, Franklin Templeton, The Kraft Group, Magellan Corporation, The Margaret Fund by Deborah and John Larkin, Teneo, Tennis Channel and UBS.
“The courage and commitment displayed by the Original 9 in 1970 remains a defining moment not just for sports, but in the push for equality in society as a whole,” said Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO. “These special athletes played an historic role in changing our sport forever and made an impact far beyond the tennis court. Fifty years after their courageous stand for independence, the WTA is proud to honor these inspirational women in such an impactful way.”
While the introduction of Open Tennis in 1968 meant amateur and professional players could compete transparently on the same stages, prize money disparity between the genders continued to grow. Matters came to a head in the summer of 1970 when a high-profile tournament in Los Angeles announced its men’s draw would be paid approximately eight times as much as the star-studded women’s line-up.
In response, Gladys Heldman, the high-profile publisher of World Tennis magazine, rallied her corporate contacts to stage the Virginia Slims Invitational at the Houston Racquet Club. The sport’s authorities refused to sanction the tournament and threatened to blacklist any rebel players – meaning they could be denied entry to Grand Slam tournaments and team competitions and lose their national rankings.
Still, nine women – the Original 9 – took a bold leap of faith in order to compete on their own terms: Jane ‘Peaches’ Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Judy Dalton, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kerry Melville Reid, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss. The tournament, which culminated with Casals defeating Dalton for the title, proved such a hit that Virginia Slims extended its sponsorship to a full-blown circuit in 1971, and the momentum generated by its innovations would ultimately lead to the formation of the WTA in 1973.
“I felt a sense of both fear and exhilaration,” recalls King of the day when matters came to a head – September 23, 1970. “We knew we were making history, and we had such a strong sense of purpose. I just kept thinking about the vision we had for the future of our sport. We wanted to ensure that any girl in the world who was good enough would have a place to go and make a living playing tennis.”
Highlights from the virtual charity event will be released on September 24. Fans can also join the festivities by visiting WTA’s dedicated Original 9 web page , following #Original9 on social and supporting WTA Charities’ campaign, “$9 Changed The World and $1 Dollar Still Makes A Difference” by visiting wtacharities.wtatennis.com/donate which will be launched on International Equal Pay Day on September 18.
Furthermore, the USTA will continue to celebrate the Original 9 and Gladys Heldman today (September 10), women’s semifinals day at the US Open, as part of its “Be Open” social activation campaign around the themes of equality and inclusiveness. At 2pm ET, a virtual panel discussion on gender pay equity will air on US Open Facebook and Twitter channels, moderated by Hannah Storm with leading female athletes across sports, including Annika Sörenstam, Venus Williams and Billie Jean King. And from September 13-23 the WTA’s broadcast partner, Tennis Channel, will air a dedicated 11-part series on Tennis Channel Live coverage and Tennis.com.
“Women’s professional tennis began with symbolic $1 contracts signed by the Original 9 with Gladys Heldman in 1970, and today a dollar can still make a difference,” said Ann Austin, Senior Director of Community Development for the WTA. “In honor of this heroic journey, WTA Charities continues to carry out their legacy by making a difference and giving back to communities around the world through values of progress and empowerment.”