The first WTA Finals, billed as the Virginia Slims Championships and held in a country club in Boca Raton, Florida, in October 1972 marked a watershed in more ways than one.
The fledgling event offered a six-figure prize money purse, including an unprecedented paycheck of $25,000 for the champion, and an enticing 16-woman field that brought together Slims trailblazers and players who were aligned with the sport’s establishment, which controlled the majors and other traditional events on the calendar.
The tournament also represented a gentle changing of the guard, when 17-year-old Floridian Chris Evert pocketed the biggest title of her career to date.
“I remember being thrilled the tournament was in my backyard, on clay, because a lot of tournaments on the Virginia Slims Circuit were indoors on a faster court and most of the top players were serve-and-volleyers,” Evert said.
“Since then, the Championships have mostly been played indoors on faster surfaces, so the conditions were ideal that year. The heat and the humidity didn’t bother me.”
And yet, the event nearly didn’t get off the ground.
Two years after Billie Jean King and her Original 9 cohorts joined forces with Gladys Heldman to launch a professional circuit, on their own terms, women’s tennis was still in a state of flux.
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The signing of iconic dollar bill contracts with Heldman at the Houston Racquet Club in 1970 kicked off a politically fraught period of threats and recriminations, as governing bodies including the International Lawn Tennis Association, the USLTA and the Australian equivalent fought to retain control of the tennis calendar and indeed the stars themselves.
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On multiple occasions over a two-year period, players faced being banned from Grand Slam and team competitions if they sided with Heldman. Meantime, on the business side of things, arguments raged on matters such as tournament sanction fees (fees paid by a promoter to secure the blessing of officialdom for a calendar slot) and a ranking point system skewed in favor of longstanding events -- even when the new Slims events boasted stronger fields.
Things looked up when Heldman was appointed to a directorial role at the USLTA in early 1972, but the rapprochement didn’t last long. And when she couldn’t get the men around the table to support a lucrative season finale to punctuate the season, Gladys did what she had done so many times before: found a way to make it happen, more or less without them.
With an eye on hitting the magic $100,000 prize money mark, Heldman secured an additional $20,000 contribution from Virginia Slims and, not for the first time, stumped up $20,000 of her own cash.
That year, only Wimbledon and the US Open offered greater prize money overall -- the French Open and WCT Men’s Finals in Dallas also offered $100,000 -- and the $25,000 winner’s paycheck sent an even bigger message: This was four times the amount Billie Jean King received as Wimbledon champion that year, and 2½ times the amount she collected for winning the US Open.
Indeed, tennis-wise, the 1972 season had been dominated by King, who won three of the four majors and seven of 21 events on the Virginia Slims Circuit.
Her success was closely followed by Nancy Richey, who won five titles on the Slims Circuit, while Rosie Casals won three, Margaret Court won two, and Chris Evert, Kerry Melville, Marie Neumannova and Virginia Wade each won one title.
That meant King was installed as top seed in Boca Raton, with Richey at No.2. But Richey was upset in the first round by Holland’s Betty Stove (one of four players in the 16-player field who reached the main draw through a 48-player qualifying event) while King was upset by 17-year-old Evert in the semis.
The real shock of the tournament, however, was the first-round dispatch of Court, albeit via retirement. Fourteen-year-old Jeanne Evert, younger sister of Chris, took the first set from Court in a tiebreak. The vastly more experienced Australian bounced back to serve for the match in the third set -- but retired after the first point with cramps in her legs and right hand.
In the final, played before a sellout crowd of 4,000, sixth-seeded Melville drop-shotted her way to 3-0 and held set points at 5-2. But Evert rallied to win eight games in a row and held on to the momentum for a 7-5, 6-4 win.
“Kerry was a tough opponent, because her style was a little closer to mine in that she had really good groundstrokes,” Evert said. “It was a matter of being more steady than her, because we had a lot of long rallies and her strategy was to bring me into the net, which was smart. She just couldn’t keep it up throughout the whole match.”
Although winning the WTA Finals gave Evert a certain momentum in her young career, she didn’t suddenly feel that she was ready to conquer the world.
“It gave me more confidence on my best surface,” Evert said. “It didn’t give me more confidence on grass. I still knew that the Billie Jeans, the Margarets, the Evonnes were better grass-court players. But on clay, I knew I could beat anybody, whatever they were ranked.
“The win was really more special because my dad, who didn’t travel much to watch me play because he got so nervous, could be there. And it was great to see Jeanne do so well -- for the rest of her life she could going around saying that she beat Margaret Court! That was a huge win for her.”
For Evert, the win marked a breakthrough after three Grand Slam semifinal efforts in the preceding five majors. It was her fourth title of the year and 11th of her career -- and the last tournament she would play before turning professional that December.
Under USLTA regulations, players could only turn pro at 18, and Evert, who was yet to win a Slam, still had a couple of months to run. Her prize money was returned to the promoters.
“My dad was adamant that we should follow the rules -- I had little choice in the matter,” she said. “He was worried that if we didn’t keep on good terms with the USLTA, who had been supporting us with expense money, I might not be able to play the US Open. For him, it wasn’t about the money at all, and he didn’t want me to turn pro early. He felt an allegiance, and I think that’s admirable.”
The following year, the Virginia Slims Championships returned to Boca, with additional meaning after the creation of the WTA in June, the securing of equal prize money at the US Open, and King’s high-profile defeat of Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes at Houston’s Astrodome.
Evert, who reached her first two Grand Slam finals that season, won the title again, this time defeating wily Texan Richey in the final. Casals and Court won the new doubles competition.
In 1974, the Championships went up a gear with a move to Los Angeles, followed in 1977 by a momentous move to New York’s Madison Square Garden, for a two-decade tenure that captured the imagination of players and fans alike.
In the years that followed, the event survived circuit restructures and date changes to become the spectacle players and fans enjoy in 2022 -- with Fort Worth, Texas becoming the 12th city to play host.
And just like Evert, who went on to capture the WTA Finals four times all up, future players -- including France’s Amelie Mauresmo, Belgium’s Kim Clijsters and Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki -- would win the season finale as a prelude to a Grand Slam title and the World No.1 ranking.
“For me, at 17 years old, I couldn’t even fathom what the WTA Finals have become,” Evert said. “I didn’t have the tools to think like that. I never had that vision like Billie Jean did but I always admired her for it.
“All these years later, it’s gratifying to reflect on the growth and global nature of women’s tennis. Over the past five decades the event has evolved significantly, but one thing hasn’t changed: It’s the best against the best and can make or break a season or even a career.”