The Century Country Club, founded in 1898, comprises some 175 leafy, bucolic acres in Purchase, New York. In the scheme of things, this might have been the scene of the most important matches in women’s tennis history -- even if only one of the competitors was a woman.

Gladys Heldman, a whirlwind of a human being, got to talking to a fellow member, Joe Cullman, a pretty fair club golfer who hadn’t played tennis since attending boarding school.

“My mother took him out on the court and thrashed him -- and he thought that was terrific,” Gladys’ daughter Julie said recently from her Santa Monica, California, home. “And they became great friends.”

They played often -- Julie’s pretty sure he never beat Gladys -- and Cullman came to share Gladys Heldman’s love of tennis. As the president and chairman of the board of Philip Morris, a cigarette company, Cullman’s financial support was critical in the birth of the Virginia Slims Circuit, which evolved over a half-century into today’s Hologic WTA Tour.

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The first, groundbreaking tournament -- featuring Billie Jean King and the rest of the famed Original 9 -- was staged 52 years ago at the Houston Racquet Club.

“If it wasn’t for the Original 9,” said Houston tennis legend Zina Garrison, “there might not be a Women’s Tennis Association.”

In a dynamic three-year span, the state of Texas had a similarly huge role in establishing the roots of women’s professional tennis from the Original 9, to the Virginia Slims Circuit to the Battle of the Sexes at the Houston Astrodome. This week at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, it’s the appropriate bookend to all of that Texas history -- the WTA Finals, featuring the best singles and doubles players from 2022.

And so, the WTA has come home to the Lone Star state.

“So much history, so many great players are associated with Texas,” said 21-time Grand Slam doubles champion Pam Shriver. “Zina Garrison, Lori McNeil, Anne Jones -- and Martina Navratilova even lived there for a while.”

Here’s a look at three landmark events in women’s tennis with deep roots in Texas.

The Original 9

Today women’s professional tennis players, factoring in prize money and endorsements, are the highest-paid female athletes in all of sport. According to Forbes Magazine, Naomi Osaka was No.1 with nearly $60 million in earnings in 2022, followed by Serena Williams at $45 million.

They can thank Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville and Judy Tegart Dalton for that privilege.

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The first Wimbledon tournament of the Open Era, when prize money became available for both amateurs and professionals, came in 1968. Men’s winner Rod Laver collected 2,000 pounds, while King received 750 pounds for winning the women’s title. Nearly four decades later, that disparity still existed, with lower prize money and fewer opportunities for women’s players.

“Everything was absolutely falling apart,” Julie Heldman said. “There were weeks where there was no place to play. So the very best players in the world had the right to earn money -- but there was no place to earn it. For people who didn’t grow up in that era, it would be impossible to know just how devoid there was of an opportunity for a women’s tennis player.”

Inside the women’s tennis revolution with Billie Jean King

In early September 1970, one-third of what would become the Original 9 -- Richey, King and Casals -- met with Gladys Heldman, publisher of the influential World Tennis magazine, on the porch at the Westside Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York.

“We took the gamble, tried to do it on our own,” Richey said from her home in San Angelo, Texas. “My dad had said why don’t you go talk to Gladys and see if she can get anything going for y’all? We did. And the rest is history.”

Original 9 Tribute

The inevitable collision came at the Pacific Southwest Championships, where the men’s prize pool was eight times the women’s. Led by Gladys Heldman, the Nine announced they would boycott the event -- and the scramble to create an alternative was on. Heldman’s husband, Julius, had just been transferred by the Shell Oil Company back to Houston, so that was the logical spot.

Julie Heldman and the Original 9’s summer of celebration

“She did everything she could to set it up,” her daughter Julie said. “Turns out, the Houston Racquet Club had just been built, and the house that my parents bought was only one mile away down Memorial Drive. They got the stands up, sold tickets, ball boys and ball girls -- all the stuff that was needed.”

The Original 9 were part of the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021 in Newport, Rhode Island, last July.

The Virginia Slims Circuit

Back in those days, the United States Lawn Tennis Association was the governing body of American tennis. The organization took a dim view of the radical, breakaway group of women who created their own tournament in Houston.

While Gladys Heldman and company contemplated a series of future events, the USLTA devised a tour of its own, featuring Margaret Court and Virginia Wade. Ultimately, after some players moved freely between the competing tours, the Slims Circuit won the public relations battle and became the established tour.

50 Years Ago Today: Virginia Slims Circuit Kicks Off

“The first one in Houston got great press,” Julie Heldman said. “So afterwards, my mother and Joe Cullman got together and decided they would start a women’s tour for 1971. It was backed by the Philip Morris/Virginia Slims money, and my mother coordinated getting tournaments, players, sponsors -- and putting the promoters and sponsors together with Virginia Slims.”

For her many contributions, Gladys Heldman was the first person enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame as a Contributor in 1979.

The timing was fortuitous, because with clinical evidence that smoking endangered health, cigarettes could no longer be advertised on television. Companies like Philip Morris were looking for new, creative ways to highlight their brands. Initially, it was billed as the World Tennis Women’s Pro Tour, but eventually it would become known by the name of the rising brand of its biggest financial backer.

At the same time, up in Dallas, Nancy Jeffett was also a big believer in tennis. Once a notable player, she was involved in junior programs in the 1960s, as well as the 1965 Davis Cup competition that featured Arthur Ashe. Jeffett co-founded the Maureen Connolly Brinker Tennis Foundation with Connolly’s husband Norman after the tennis star died in 1969 of cervical cancer at the age of 34.

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Their first event was the 1970 Maureen Connolly Brinker Ladies Championship, strictly a fundraiser, whose field included King, Casals, Margaret Court and Virginia Wade.

“Texas is a very entrepreneurial place,” her daughter Elizabeth “Sissy” Jeffett said from her Dallas home. “It has a very positive can-do spirit. So I think in the early years, there were people who just jumped on board of the idea of doing tennis. People just get behind things.

“Gladys Heldman was doing things in Houston, and Lamar Hunt owned the World Championship Tennis in Dallas. With so many reporters going through Dallas, the world’s media was exposed to women’s tennis, too.”

In 1971, Virginia Slims featured 19 tournaments in the United States with a prize-money pool for its 40 players in excess of $300,000.

“The tour came out of nowhere,” Julie Heldman said. “We were playing at clubs, staying at people’s houses as guests, maybe making $100 bucks. We had two courts, two rubberized surfaces that traveled from stop to stop.”

By 1972 the Mo Connolly tournament, benefitting the foundation, was part of the Virginia Slims lineup. 

“My mother was told not to stage the tournament because no one would ever pay to watch women’s tennis,” Sissy Jeffett said. “They said, 'Don’t do it. You’ll lose your shirt, you’ll lose all your money.’ But she personally pledged the prize money and it was a success.”

It was broadcast by KXAS, the Dallas public television station -- player Anne Smith and journalist Richard Evans were the broadcast team -- believed to be the first broadcast of women’s professional tennis.

One year later, in 1973, King was instrumental in bringing together all the various constituencies at a London hotel, and the WTA was born.

A half-century after the Virginia Slims' first season, the WTA staged 55 tournaments this year in 27 countries. 

The Battle of the Sexes

In his day, Bobby Riggs was a formidable tennis player, winning six major titles, including three at Wimbledon. But in 1973, well past his prime at the age of 55, his gift for self-promotion -- and latent male chauvinism -- got the better of him.

In May, he met then-No.1-ranked Margaret Court in a Mother’s Day match attended by 5,000 and televised nationally by CBS. Court, who had given birth to her first child 14 months earlier, lost 6-1, 6-2 and Riggs found himself on the cover of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated.

Billie Jean King, who had declined his initial invitation to play, knew what she had to do. On Sept. 20, in the Houston Astrodome, they met in the Battle of the Sexes, a spectacle that felt more like a heavyweight boxing bout than a tennis match. It was a charged atmosphere that would be viewed by 50 million in the United States and an estimated 90 million around the world -- one of the most-watched sports events in history.

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The fact that the WTA had been formed a few months earlier on the eve of Wimbledon at a player meeting at the Gloucester Hotel in London added to the stakes for King, who did not want to let that new enterprise down.

“I’m taking this match very seriously,” King told reporters. “I love to win. I welcome the responsibility and the pressure. Bobby had better be ready.”

Before the match, King presented Riggs with a pink piglet, symbolic of his self-avowed male chauvinism.

“I was there courtside, sitting on the ground watching,” Nancy Richey said. “It was a huge spectacle. Probably never see anything like that again.” 

As it turned out, it wasn’t even close. King, at the age of 29, the fitter athlete by far, won 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. She routinely ran Riggs from side to side, using his own defensive game against him. Her prize was a winner-take-all $100,000. And a degree of vindication after Court’s earlier loss.

“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King said afterward. “It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.” 

Zine Garrison, a future tennis star, was 9 years old and playing outside with friends when her mother, Mary Elizabeth, came running out the front door.

“My mom -- who was not a sports person -- was yelling, 'The lady beat the man! The lady beat the man!’

“I tell Billie that story all the time. All the women were excited because the lady beat the man. She was so fired up.”

Said Richey: “Tennis took off and really exploded at that point. People were taking up tennis and they were playing all night, booking courts at three in the morning. It was just incredible.”

In 2017, the event was memorialized in movie form when Fox Searchlight Pictures released the “Battle of the Sexes” a film starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs.

“We knew -- I knew -- that this was a moment that was really important,” Heldman said. “And we knew there wasn’t much choice. The alternatives weren’t great. We were incredibly brave, but also at the same time we knew it was the only thing we could do. 

“Which was to stand up for what was the right thing to do.”

WTA historian Adam Lincoln contributed to this report.