After the success of the Original 9’s revolutionary stand on September 23, 1970, things moved quickly for the new troupe of women’s tennis professionals as they strove to break free of the shackles imposed by the sport’s establishment.
During that first tournament at Houston, they’d spent evenings at the home of Gladys Heldman, the promoter who’d signed them to risky $1 contracts, to discuss their vision for the future. They worked out that for competition to be viable for all players, not just the big stars, events needed to offer a purse of at least $10,000 a week. They also decided that World Tennis publisher Heldman was the right person to help them move forward.
“We knew that to really have a future, we had to have a tour or a series of tournaments,” recalls Billie Jean King, chief powerbroker among the players. “It was getting so there was no place for the women to play anymore. The male players really didn’t want us to play, because we took some of the prize money if we did. And men were also in control of the tournaments, as promoters.”
So, at the bidding of the Original 9, Heldman – who had secured backing from Philip Morris’s Virginia Slims cigarette brand for her Houston Invitational – went back to her friend, Philip Morris chairman Joe Cullman III, to see if the company would support a circuit of some kind. Delighted by the publicity splash from Houston, Cullman was only too keen to give the women what they needed: financial backing, to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars, and the Virginia Slims name as title sponsor for a circuit in 1971.
These crucial developments provided impetus for supporting sponsors to come on board – and then the hard work really started.
Photo Gallery: Lights, Cameras, Action: The Virginia Slims Circuit
“It is really mindboggling,” says King of a logistical feat that saw a full-scale tour mounted barely three months after the Houston stand-off. “We had no infrastructure, and yet we got all sorts of people – promoters, venues – to take a risk. The reason is because of the title sponsor, because there was some money up there, and that was down to Gladys and her contacts.”
The first event, the $15,000 British Motor Cars Invitation, was held on a carpet court at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium, starting January 6. As well as eight of the Original 9 – only Julie Heldman was missing – the 16-player draw included the European stars Ann Jones and Françoise Dürr, South Africa’s Esme Emanuel, Karen Krantzcke of Australia, and Americans Denise Carter, Mary Ann Eisel, Darlene Hard and Stephanie Johnson.
King and her then-husband Larry King in fact part-owned the event, in a consortium that included among others Jerry Diamond, who later became CEO of the WTA. They also put up the necessary backing for the $14,000 BJ King Invitation held in King’s hometown of Long Beach the following week.
“Larry said that if we bought tournaments it would create a market and they would start to have more value,” King explains. “Having my skin in the game, I got to understand very quickly what it took to put a tournament together from the ground up.”
Despite the pressures, after the “excruciating tension” of Houston, the mood in San Francisco was much better, King adds. “The expectations were starting to build. We started to feel like it was our moment. Looking back now, the tournament in Houston was really a planning week for the future, getting together, taking that leap of faith. Otherwise, nothing was ever going to happen. We were lucky that there were nine of us who were prepared to do it.”
For Rosie Casals, who lost to King in the final at San Francisco, the week was particularly special. “I remember going to the Civic Auditorium as a child, for the car show,” says the Bay Area native. “It was extremely exciting to have such a wonderful facility to play in… we were accustomed to playing at country clubs and other traditional venues.”
They had to work hard to fill the seats, of course – and even harder to get the male-dominated media to take an interest.
“I recall the stadium being pretty full by the end, and certainly I had all my friends there,” Casals says. “But I also remember going out onto the streets or in front of supermarkets to give tickets away, just so people would have a chance to see if they liked what we had to offer. As for the journalists – they really acted like they had been relegated if they had to cover us.”
Still, more than 3,100 fans turned up for the final – the women were on their way. And, with the guiding hand of Virginia Slims marketing executives Bill Cutler and Ellen Merlo, they got better and better at making their presence felt.
The catch: Virginia Slims’ famous slogan – You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby! – resonated as a battle cry for the players from the start, but smoking was already controversial. In 1971, new regulations came into effect in the United States banning the advertising of cigarettes on television and radio; tobacco companies needed other avenues for promotion, and sports sponsorship remained open to them.
King admits the connection made some uneasy, at least initially, but pays tribute to the “brilliant” personnel who came with the Philip Morris machine: “They showed us total integrity at the time and became lifelong friends.”
In addition to sending vital staff to support promoters and their small teams, the title sponsor gave the players much-needed media training. “They recognized that we had a human story to offer – they really wanted to make us into celebrities, because they believed it was important that people felt they knew us,” says King.
“Another very important thing they did was hire Ted Tinling to design and make our dresses. Every year we’d have a different color or theme. Rhinestones, gold lamé, you name it! He'd make the dresses according to how he saw our personalities, and over the years that became a key part of our branding.”
With prize money from Virginia Slims and other sponsors totaling just over $300,000, the 1971 World Tennis Women’s Pro Tour – commonly known as the Virginia Slims Circuit –took in some 19 US cities, from the bright lights of Las Vegas to a field house in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“There were several really difficult tournament arenas that we played in, such as basketball stadiums with tennis lines painted over them, so it was hard to know where the ball landed,” remembers Judy Dalton, one of two Australians in the Original 9. “Roofs so low you couldn’t lob. Experimenting with colored tennis balls, hoping we could see them better in poor light!”
But Dalton is quick to add they were grateful and also had a blast: from having tea with Jackie Kennedy’s mother in the aristocratic environs of the Breakers mansions in Newport to being snowed in with Dürr at billet housing in Milwaukee – and only just being dug out in time for their doubles match.
Indeed, the touring pros, who frequently pooled together to drive from city to city, were also subjects of fascination for their local hosts.
Julie Heldman recalls: “We would stay in people’s homes to save money and the women would approach us and say, ‘My marriage is falling apart, I can see that you are new women… can we talk about it?’ Everything was changing mightily at this time – it was the tail end of the 60s, and we were looked to as harbingers of a new world.”
Momentum built, and by the end of 1971 around 40 players had signed up to the Slims universe. Though they remained aligned with the tennis federations of the old guard, players like Margaret Court, Virginia Wade, Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert made the odd foray onto the new circuit that first year as well, while the Slims stalwarts still played some of the almost 50 non-Slims events that were also staged that year, including the majors.
Despite the off-court demands on her time and energy, King reigned supreme, becoming the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a single year. It was an important milestone in the context of the burgeoning women’s movement, and US President Richard Nixon even called King to offer his congratulations. “We were very fortunate culturally with the timing, and I think we probably created some of it,” she notes.
And yet, the battle was far from won. Although the USLTA was quick to lift the suspensions it initially slapped on the American members of the Original 9, which would have kept them out of the Grand Slam tournaments and national teams, the truce was short-lived. As the politicking continued, Dalton and fellow Aussie Kerry Melville Reid suffered consequences at home and it would be almost three years before women’s tennis became a unified force with creation of the WTA on the eve of Wimbledon in June, 1973.
Fifty years later, that first Virginia Slims tournament held in San Francisco lives on as the WTA 500 Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, after notable tenures in Oakland and Stanford. The event ranks as the oldest women-only Tour-level tournament.
“We had a heck of a time, starting everything, forging opportunities,” reflects Casals, five decades on. “The tour was really a place where we gathered and we would be sad to separate at the holidays. It was like being with family and friends. Going to dinner together, warming up with opponents. It was a very special time.”