Francoise Dürr’s Hall of Fame career brought 12 Grand Slam titles, including the singles at Roland Garros in 1967 – the last staging of her home Slam in the amateur era. The following year, the tenacious World No.3 joined Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Ann Jones as the first women to sign pro contracts, as part of George MacCall’s National Tennis League, which began as a vehicle for male stars like Rod Laver, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe.
While relatively short-lived, such ventures helped force the establishment to embrace professional players, but Dürr quickly saw that ‘Open’ tennis was marginalizing for the women’s game. So, when the first Virginia Slims Circuit kicked off in San Francisco in 1971, ‘Frankie’ was there with bells on – and only Billie Jean King would earn more prize money that season. In 1973, Dürr was founding co-secretary of the new WTA and she continued to make her presence felt on and off court for much of the decade, finishing with 26 singles titles overall.
How did you get started in tennis?
Francoise Dürr: I began playing tennis in Oran, Algeria. My father was in the French military and won the military tennis championships. In fact, all my family played tennis, so I would follow them to the tennis club LTCO (Lawn Tennis Club Oranais). I was not allowed to play on the court since I was too young, so I started to practice on the wall of the garage and of the club. I have to give thanks to the hinges of the garage, because the erratic bounces improved my good reflexes.
Describe your path to the world stage.
FD: I played in the Under 16 and Under 18 Nationals in France and then at Roland Garros for the first time in 1960. After completing my baccalaureate, I took a gap year and travelled on the different amateur circuits, namely to South Africa and the Caribbean. I went to Forest Hills for the first time in 1962, and in 1963 I competed in the first Fed Cup competition.
What’s the story behind your unusual playing style?
FD: Since I started playing without a coach, I developed a funny unorthodox grip by putting my index finger flat on the handle. Later, when I had a coach, he tried to correct this – but it was too late to change. I could not feel the ball on the racquet, so I kept the same grip, even though it meant I would practically kneel or even sit on the court to hit some shots! My backhand, with a bent wrist, was one of my best shots since no one could read where the shot would go. When my daughter started to play, she also used her index finger on the racquet. Of course, I told her this was a big no no!
What was your most memorable triumph?
FD: It has to be winning Roland Garros in 1967. In the final against Lesley Turner, I was 15-30, 4-2 down in the third set and came back to win 6-4. While I was on the court, I remembered what my coach told me – that I should fight to the very last point, since I may never be in the final of a Grand Slam again. That proved to be the case in singles, but I also treasure my doubles (7) and mixed doubles (4) titles.
You played at a very interesting time, in terms of tennis politics – what was that like?
FD: We started the Virginia Slims Circuit with 16 players and nobody to replace one of us if anyone was sick. I can remember standing outside a supermarket in Detroit with Billie Jean King and Betty Stove, giving away free tickets! People did not know women’s tennis, but if we could get them in once, they would usually come back. Most of the club players, even the men, liked to see the women play because they could relate to playing like us. Eventually the players realized that to really have impact, we would need to be a unified body, so the Women’s Tennis Association was created in 1973.
Is there a particular moment that sticks in your memory from the early years of the WTA?
FD: Funnily enough I lost the match, but my most memorable experience away from the Slams was playing the final of the Colgate Inaugural tournament at in Palm Springs, California in 1976. With prize money of $213,000, it was the richest event we’d seen in women’s tennis to that time. I beat Martina Navratilova in the quarters but lost to Chris Evert in the final. She was the hardest to beat – she was playing like me, but a lot better. After that tournament, Chris became the first female athlete to earn a million dollars.
Did you have a personal ritual when you played tennis?
FD: I was traveling by myself to tournaments and it could get very lonely, so by 1972 I decided to buy a dog to keep me company. She was an Airedale and I called her Topspin because I didn't have any topspin in my game! She was happy to see me whether I won or lost but my racquets were the only toys she had, and that’s how it became a ritual for her to carry them onto the court when I was playing doubles. She was the first pet in the dressing room, and I had to put a headband on her saying “please do not feed me” because the players always wanted to give her cookies!
Players from your era tend to have a Ted Tinling story—what’s yours?
FD: Thanks to Ted Tinling, who designed different dresses for the players, we were able to present ourselves very nicely as professionals on the court. Once, playing on the center court of Wimbledon, I took off my sweater after the warm-up and there was a big silence in the stadium. Teddy had made me a halter backless dress – shocking, my dear!
What have you been up to since retiring from the Tour?
FD: After retiring from playing tennis, I lived in the US for 15 years before returning to France with two children. Being back home in France, I was offered a job by the French Tennis Federation to run the women’s division (1993-2002) and to be the Fed Cup captain. In 1997, as a co-captain with Yannick Noah, we won the first Fed Cup for France. To this day, I continue to play tennis at the Senior European Championships and attend matches at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
What is your favorite movie about sports?
FD: Battle of the Sexes (2017) with Emma Stone and Steve Carell. It brought back many memories when, in 1973, we were playing the Virginia Slims tournament in Houston and were able to go to see Billie Jean King play against Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome. It was fun being on the sidelines of one of the biggest crowds for any tennis match at that time – or ever – and to see history in the making for women’s sport.
What has the sport of tennis meant to you?
FD: My life because of the game was fun. I travelled around the world and made many friends, especially because in the beginning we stayed with hosts instead of at hotels. And while playing World Team Tennis in Denver I met my husband, Boyd Browning. Tennis has enriched my life in many ways.
What encouragement would you give to today’s players to maximize their careers on the WTA Tour?
FD: I really do think the game is stronger now, but all the same, I would like to see more variety such as short cross court balls, drop shots and normal volleys. You have to fight and give your best. You should never give up, because each match is different, even if you play the same opponent. And play for your country in the Olympics if you have the chance – one of my regrets is that tennis was not an Olympic sport during my time. Tennis is a great sport for life – and most importantly, have fun on the court.