Thursday is WTA Independence Day, which celebrates the events of Sept. 23, 1970. On that day, nine brave women (including me) – the Original 9 – fought the male tennis establishment and won the right to earn a living as women tennis professionals. We’d been threatened that, if we competed at the Houston tournament, we would be suspended from competition in all major tennis events. Our refusal to cave in to the USLTA’s unreasonable demands resulted in the beginning of the women’s pro tour, which in 1973 became the WTA Tour.
In Houston, the players signed a one dollar contract with my mother, Gladys Heldman, in order to escape the association’s unrelenting attacks. The photo memorializing that contract was at first published only in the Houston Chronicle. During the intervening years, the WTA has kept our legacy alive by sending that iconic photo around the world and teaching each generation of players about our legacy, but until very recently, the mainstream media largely overlooked our bravery.
The WTA has also memorialized our 51-year-old rebellion by holding reunions for the Original 9, which have helped cement our bond.
I have not been able to attend all the Original 9 reunions due to my lengthy struggles with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that has all too often struck with ferocity and kept me tethered to my own room. As a result, I have missed nearly all major tennis events over the past 30-odd years. Still, I have treasured the Original 9 reunions that I’ve been able to attend, particularly the one in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2012, the last time that all nine of us sat in a room together.
Two months ago, we had the most important reunion of all, when we were inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. Although our days and nights in Newport were glorious, filled with interviews, parties, celebrations and plenty of time to reignite the Original 9’s solidarity, getting inducted into the Hall of Fame wasn’t a piece of cake. The WTA has always supported our induction, but the Hall of Fame had institutional constraints, including a relatively recent rule that prohibited the induction of groups.
But once again, our group didn’t allow mere rules to intervene with our destiny. In 2018, Rosie Casals started campaigning for the Original 9 to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The following year, I wrote letters to the Hall of Fame explaining the importance of our stand and our solidarity, and then Billie Jean King weighed in with the request that the Hall of Fame review its “no groups” policy. After our group effort, the Hall of Fame formed a special committee, which in 2020 proposed that the “no groups” policy should be overturned, basically just for us.
By February 2021, I knew that the Hall of Fame induction would soon be announced, but when I got the call from Stan Smith, President of the Hall of Fame, my excitement reached a new high, knowing that the rest of the world would have to take notice of what we did; that an induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame is the highest honor in tennis and that I would finally be able to make a full return to the tennis world.
So in July, my husband, Bernie, my daughter, Amy, and I flew to Newport, where all the inductees were treated splendidly from start to finish, with all of our needs taken care of by the incomparable Anne Marie McLaughlin and her crew. In Newport, I was once again surrounded by my old pals and rivals, the Original 9, although Judy Dalton and Nancy Richey couldn’t make the trip to Newport.
My mother, Gladys Heldman, the architect of Houston and of the early women’s pro tour, was also missing from Newport because she died in 2003. But even though each one of the Original 9 members who attended the Newport celebrations is very different, we bonded as a group, which was evident at every event.
In interviews, the media always started by asking Billie Jean King, our charismatic leader, most of the questions, but the rest of us – mostly Rosie and I – butted right in when we had something to say. There wasn’t a wilting lily among these old war horses, neither in front of the Original 9 exhibit in the Hall of Fame Museum nor when we sat for interviews on the lawn of a Hall of Fame grass court nor when we schmoozed with old tennis pals and dignitaries at the Friday night party.
Our Newport weekend culminated with the fog rolling in on the induction ceremony. We all gave speeches, except for Peaches Bartkowicz, who asked us to speak for her.
Each of the speeches was unique.
As the leader, Billie Jean introduced the group. Kerry Melville Reid, the most private of us all, gave a talk that was genuine and heart felt, and she credited Judy Dalton for advising Kerry to play in Houston. Val Ziegenfuss thanked the tennis world that has kept on giving to her and to her family. Kristy Pigeon said we were “misfits, troublemakers, rebels, who were just crazy enough to change the world of tennis.”
My speech spotlighted the importance of the women pros who followed in our footsteps once the early tour got under way, and who were an essential factor in its success. And the last speaker was Rosie Casals, who claimed she was “frightened to death” to follow all such wonderful speeches, but she closed out our portion of the ceremony with aplomb.
After the ceremony, we took pictures with our families, and it was time to say goodbye, but not for long, because seven weeks later, six of us met up in New York City for further festivities, including receiving very special Hall of Fame rings in a ceremony held on the court of the towering Arthur Ashe stadium in Flushing Meadow. When I heard that we’d each receive a ring, I imagined garish, over-the-top Super Bowl baubles, which turned out to be completely wrong. The rings we received are delicate and gorgeous, each with two lovely green stones and a winding gold band, which is inscribed “ORIGINAL 9.”
Before our NYC trip, I’d purposefully stayed a continent away from Arthur Ashe stadium, fearing its celebrated noise and commotion. But with my pals and rivals at my side, I felt at ease, without my former crippling fears, and I was thrilled to embrace the great cheer the crowd gave us.
For me, the summer was topped off by the Hall of Fame’s Legends Ball, held on Saturday, Sept. 11, which honored both the Original 9 and my mother. The occasion was held in the grand Cipriani ballroom (perfect for a tennis “ball”), replete with doting servers, delicious food and more praise for the bravery of the Original 9. I gave a speech to the nearly 300 guests, accepting the Gene Scott award on behalf of my mother for her stellar contributions to the game, both as the editor and publisher of World Tennis magazine, and as an extraordinary promoter who is best known as the architect and engineer of the Houston tournament.
How fitting then, that she was being honored simultaneously with the Original 9, for whom she had been so indispensable.
In Newport and NYC, the bond between the members of the Original 9 was yet again renewed and deepened. We’re not getting any younger, but I hope we’ll stick around for more wonderful reunions, although it’ll be hard to match the excitement and the honors of our 2021 summer of celebrations.
Click here for more on the Original 9. https://www.wtatennis.com/original-9