On Oct. 3, 1971, Billie Jean King won the Virginia Slims Thunderbird Classic in Phoenix, Arizona, to become the first female athlete to pass $100,000 in a season. The amount was roughly 10 times the average U.S. income that year, or four times the cost of a new house. The significance of the feat was clear, and it came just 12 months after the Original 9 risked their careers to play in promoter Gladys Heldman’s groundbreaking women’s event at Houston. Still, as King remembers, the future of women’s tennis was by no means assured.
On Saturday, 50 years later, King and the rest of the Original 9 will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It's the first time in history a group will receive that honor.
"The reason I think we did what we did was because of our deep sense of history," King said Friday in an interview at the Hall of Fame.
From its creation, to the iconic $1 contract, King looks back on how the Original 9 began and what it meant.
“Open” tennis created new pressure points, especially for women players. What was your mindset in helping shape what eventually became the Original 9?
BJK: More and more tournaments were going to men-only, and we were getting squeezed. The writing was on the wall. It was getting so there was no place for the women to play. Men controlled all the tournaments, as promoters and players, and they really didn't want us to play anymore because we took some of the prize money – albeit only a small percentage – if we did. Really, I wanted us all, men and women, to be together. But the guys looked at me like I must be joking, and a couple of them said that nobody would pay a dime to watch the women play.
So that’s what precipitated the events that followed, when the Original 9 – Rosie Casals, Peaches Bartkowicz, Judy Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville Reid, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Valerie Ziegenfuss and me – signed with Gladys Heldman to play at the Virginia Slims Invitational.
What do recall of that iconic moment at the Houston Racquet Club, when the nine of you joined forces with Gladys and held up the $1 bills?
BJK: We had to take things into our own hands, but I wanted to do it in the most diplomatic and proper way possible, so I made a call to Alastair Martin, who was the President of the USLTA, and told him what we were about to do. I had been trying for two years to convince them to create a tour for us. I said, “You don’t want to provide it, I hear you, but I don’t want you to read about this in the paper tomorrow without me calling you.” He just kept telling me it was against the rules, that there would be consequences, and not to do it.
Finally, I went back to the group and said, “Let's go, let’s get this over with, please!” It was excruciating. We were all scared. … Our careers were on the line and we had no idea what was going to happen. We were told we wouldn’t be able to play the Slams.
We just knew we had the dream, the vision. We wanted every little girl in the world to have the opportunity to play and if she was good enough, to make a living from tennis. That’s what we were thinking about when we made that $1 contract with Gladys.
How did you feel by the end of the Houston Invitational?
BJK: That event was really so tiny, but it ended up being a week of very important discussions. After the matches we’d go to Gladys’ home and sit in a semicircle in her bedroom – which was huge – trying to figure out how we were going to shape the future. We knew we had to have a series of tournaments, in order to survive. My former husband, Larry, and Dennis Van Der Meer were willing to try to mount a tour, but the girls voted to go with Gladys. Truthfully, even before Houston, Larry saw that Gladys had the means, the understanding of the corporate world through her work as publisher of World Tennis, and the connections to help us. She was the right choice.
What sort of things did you talk about as a group?
BJK: We had to figure out how much prize money we’d need per week. So, I asked each of the women what they’d received under the table as amateurs. It was difficult, because some of them didn’t want to say anything about what they made or didn’t make. I was getting about $2,000 but some said they didn’t receive anything – not even their plane ticket. We worked out that our realistic market value at that time was about $10,000.
How much of the bigger picture did you see at the time?
BJK: Oh, we were also talking way beyond sport. We were talking about society and the changes that were needed. Remember, we were just getting into the women’s movement. We were hearing a lot every day, understanding the facts better – what we had, as women, and what we didn't have. We couldn’t get a credit card in those days without a guy doing the paperwork for us.
How soon after Houston did it become apparent that a full series of events – the Virginia Slims Circuit – would be viable in 1971?
BJK: Gladys may have told us before we even left Houston that Virginia Slims were keen. The new circuit started in January, so that left us three months to get organized. That we managed it at all was thanks to Gladys and her contacts. Also, Larry and I took on two tournaments with another four partners. The very first tournament was ours, at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, a great venue. That event lives on as the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic at San Jose, which is fantastic. And then the following week we had the Billie Jean King Invitational at Long Beach City College.
Having skin in the game, I got to understand very quickly what it took to put a tournament together from the ground up. Larry believed that if we bought events it would create a market and they would start to have more value. But in the beginning, we had no infrastructure and it really is mindboggling that we got people to take the risks they did. And the reason is because of the title sponsor – because there was money up there.
After the stresses of Houston, how was the mood heading into San Francisco?
BJK: The atmosphere was much better. The expectations were building and we felt like it was our opportunity. The tournament in Houston was really a planning week for the future, getting together, taking that leap of faith – because if someone didn’t just do it, nothing was ever going to happen. We were lucky there were nine of us. And there were players who would have been with us if they’d been in the States at the time – Europeans like Betty Stove, Francoise Dürr, Ingrid Bentzer and Ann Jones. The new tournaments had 16-player fields, so it was great to have other players join us when they could.
Did you struggle with the notion that the circuit was sponsored by a tobacco company?
BJK: When Gladys told us she’d got a cigarette company for the tournament in Houston, I thought, “Oh no – that’s a terrible message!’ I don’t smoke; I don’t believe in it. But, partly due to a change in advertising regulations, Philip Morris had the extra budget and they were looking for a way to spend it. It was an opportunity for them, and obviously for us. And you know what? Their people were unbelievable. Brilliant. They showed us total integrity at the time, and they’re still my friends to this day.
How did the relationship work, in practice? Besides sponsorship dollars, what did Virginia Slims bring to the table?
BJK: They brought infrastructure, in terms of personnel. They’d send five or six people to a tournament, so for local promoters, it meant that suddenly the headcount was doubled in the player service area and public relations effort. And one very important thing they did was hire the British designer Ted Tinling to make our dresses. Every year we’d have a different color or theme. He’d make the dresses according to how he saw our personalities, and over the years that became a key part of our branding.
As players, how else did you benefit from their marketing expertise?
BJK: First of all, the Virginia Slims folks 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. They made calls and created opportunities. We’d do PR like crazy: pro-ams, television, print. During the indoor tournaments I would be up until 2 a.m. doing interviews and then get up for a 6 a.m. radio show. We all pitched in and we were just beat. They also gave us media training – how to know when a journalist was baiting us, how to talk about other players, how to talk about other things besides forehands and backhands. It was PR 101 and we needed it.
How did you persuade media that women’s tennis deserved attention?
BJK: You have to remember, we didn't have female sportswriters attend our press conferences, only men. But I grew up with a jock dad and my brother was a major league baseball player, so in a way I was in my element.
It was tough, though, because they labeled us in ways guys would never be labeled. I decided to tell the media we were entertainers. I’d say, “Listen, the best men could kill the best women. But we’re just as good entertainment, sometimes better – depends on the match.” And that made sense to people. We’d drive up to newspaper offices and pitch ourselves to the sports section. We also tried to get off the sports pages, to the style section or some other. Sometimes they’d just feel sorry for us and send a stringer or an intern.
The hustle extended to some pretty direct public approaches, didn’t it?
BJK: We were all out in the streets, man, stopping the cars, pleading with potential spectators, giving out tickets. We’d bail up people in supermarket parking lots, wherever. In Chattanooga we wore Davy Crockett hats to attract attention. We’d see a station wagon full of kids and we’d stop them. All of us would do it, everyone helped. Anything to fill the seats.
And the playing conditions weren’t always ideal…
BJK: We’d use fuchsia-colored balls you couldn’t see, and sometimes the courts would be horrible and the ceilings too low. And of course we’d say, ‘Gosh, the courts are great, the lighting is wonderful, everyone’s been so good to us here.’ I used to tell the players not to say anything bad about anything, because when we left, those people still had to live there. I’d tell them, ‘Just remember, this is the beginning… say it’s good!’ And really, we knew it was – we’d been making $14 a day. We had it great, we were living large. Everything’s relative to your frame of reference.
What were the other imperatives for you, during that first Slims season?
BJK: Gladys mounted a $40,000 tournament at the Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston during the summer. By that point we were focused on getting me over $100,000 in prize money for the year, so I would be the first woman athlete to achieve that. I knew I had to win the Houston tournament or I wasn’t going to make it. It was some pressure for me personally, but more than anything it was about the message we wanted to send.
And after you subsequently passed the $100,000 mark in Phoenix, you received a special call?
BJK: That’s right. President Nixon, also being from Southern California, had given me trophies at amateur tournaments and he followed my career. He was really thrilled that I had done it. I took the call at Philip Morris’s offices. I remember we did a big media day and I believe I was wearing a paper crown.
It all segued nicely into the next year. It was at the height of the women’s movement – Title IX passed on June 23, 1972 – so it was just perfect. I played Bobby Riggs in ‘73, the Battle of the Sexes, and we got a great TV contract with CBS. We were very fortunate culturally with the timing in the United States and elsewhere, and I think we created some of the momentum too.
The USLTA was actually pretty quick to drop its sanctions against the Original 9, but they set up a rival tour. How did that make you feel?
BJK: Can you imagine, after two years of pleading with them behind the scenes? So, we have a tour and – oh, no – now there are two tours. It divided the players, which was the worst thing that could have happened. For me, the next goal was that we had to be together. We wanted the top talent playing against each other every week. Because of Philip Morris and their expertise, we were able to stay ahead of the curve. They had a lot more money than the USLTA, and I know from the Philip Morris side, Joe Cullman and Ellen Merlo did a lot to try and work it all out with the governing authorities.
As the Virginia Slims Circuit gathered steam, did you ever dream it would take so long before everyone was under the same banner with the formation of the WTA?
BJK: My big concern was that if we stayed divided we both could fail – and then we’d end up with nothing again – so Rosie, Nancy, Frankie, Betty, Ann and I lobbied among the players all the time. We were ostracized by some, and we knew it was going to be a long haul. I also knew it was important for the national associations and Virginia Slims and the other promoters to work things out behind the scenes. On and off the court we were constantly thinking, working, lobbying. Once we’d made up our mind and had a goal, we’d go lobby like crazy.
What form did this lobbying take? How did you organize yourselves?
BJK: I’d say something like, ‘OK, Rosie, who are the two players you have the most influence over and get along with the best?” Often all this would take place in the locker room – we were still staying in private housing a lot of the time, not all at the same hotel, so we’d be split up at night. We’d have to create meetings on site or go to dinner. And if we were at a hotel, we’d meet in someone’s room and be up until 4 a.m. trying to strategize. We were exhausted. People ask me what I remember about it and I say, “Being tired all the time!”
Looking past the challenges and frustrations of the time, how do you reflect on what you all achieved?
BJK: It was incredible. The interest in tennis was phenomenal at that time, and it just kept growing exponentially. We weren’t competing with as many sports, which helped. And let’s face it, we were kind of lucky that all the stars were in alignment: Philip Morris, Gladys, the nine of us ready to take the first step and then have others join us to do everything we could to promote our sport. I mean, we killed ourselves, but we had a great sense of humor and we were able to keep laughing. I don’t think we would have made it otherwise, because it helped us stay together through thick and thin.