As the anticipation of Wimbledon in 1973 began to take hold, a group of more than 50 women tennis professionals found themselves gathered in the newly opened Millennium Gloucester Hotel in London. Among them, Australian star Lesley Hunt found herself captivated by the fiery determination of a trailblazing figure in Billie Jean King, whose indomitable spirit was about to redefine the landscape of women's tennis.
“Meeting Billie Jean King changed my life,” said Hunt, a Top 10 regular in the 1970s. “Here was a player with her own assertive style, who openly reveled in being on court. She worked the ball and attacked the net with such flair. Not only that, she wanted to help other women display their talent. She was loud and opinionated, was passionate about the game and wanted everyone to know how good we were at it.
“I loved that she referred to us as ‘women athletes,’ worthy of admiration, and that she wanted us to broaden our horizons. I could rave on but suffice to say, I had found a leader I could admire.”
Hunt wasn’t alone. At the grand old age of 29, King’s charisma, intelligence and sheer force of will was more than enough to lure this group of players to a game-changing meeting on that June 21, half a century ago.
It helped that the hotel was brand new and offering free rooms to players. For younger players accustomed to being billeted in private homes, this was a glamorous turn of events and an enticing glimpse of better things to come. That week a women’s tournament was being played at nearby Queen’s Club, so the hotel was busy.
Practically speaking, King’s choice of venue made it easy for the maximum number of players to attend her summit -- for which the agenda was clear. Frustrated by the sexist attitudes of the sport’s establishment and turf wars that had resulted in competing circuits and a divided talent pool, King was determined the women would formally join forces to take control of their destiny.
“In my mind, it was now or never,” King once said. “I wanted the men and women players to be together, but it wasn’t going to happen. As women, we were at a point in our history where we needed one strong, unified voice.”
Unquestionably, women’s professional tennis had blossomed since September 1970, when the Original 9 renegades joined forces with World Tennis publisher and promoter Gladys Heldman at Houston, holding dollar bills aloft to create an iconic image.
Defying looming threats of a ban from participating in major tournaments or representing their respective countries, the women's decision set in motion the formation of the Virginia Slims Circuit. This pioneering tour, spanning nearly 20 American cities in 1971, marked a significant milestone as King emerged as the first woman athlete to earn a staggering $100,000 in a single season.
In 1972, prize money on the Slims Circuit rose by around 60 percent to $526,000 as King and her cohorts worked hard to build their fan base and attract additional sponsors. The season-ending Virginia Slims Championships, a precursor to today’s WTA Finals, became the first women’s tournament to offer $100,000. Riding the zeitgeist of societal change, they themselves were making a singular contribution to the women’s movement.
And yet, this success served to exacerbate fraught politics within the sport, particularly relations between the formidable Heldman and a USLTA which now wanted a bigger piece of the action.
Matters came to a head in the spring of 1973, when Heldman refused to pay the high tournament sanction fees demanded by the USLTA. The governing body responded by once again threatening to strip Heldman’s pros of their official status -- and by mounting a rival tour headlined by Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Virginia Wade and Olga Morozova.
For King, this was the final straw, and so a couple of months later she found herself instructing the 5-foot-11 Dutch player Betty Stöve to stand guard at the door of that room at the Gloucester -- to keep players in and curious media out -- until her colleagues and peers had agreed on a way forward.
King sat at a table at the front of the room, with Rosie Casals -- nicknamed The General -- at her side. Eventually, they emerged from the meeting triumphant and King was elected president of the new Women’s Tennis Association. Wade was appointed vice president, Hunt assistant vice president, while Françoise Dürr and Ingrid Löfdahl Bentzer would share secretarial duties. Stöve was the designated treasurer.
“It felt like the meeting went on forever, but it was probably a few hours,” Casals said. “The atmosphere was scintillating. I really believe that the women who showed up came for a reason. I think we all felt we could achieve something.”
Momentum was boosted by the fact that Larry King, Billie Jean’s husband at the time, and a lawyer, arrived at the meeting armed with preparatory paperwork.
“We knew we had to be an association, not a union, because as athletes we were private contractors,” Billie Jean said. “Larry brought the expertise we needed for areas such as bylaws, so that we could start organizing ourselves right away.”
In the absence of any kind of corporate executive leadership or staff, some 20 players were appointed to committees that would focus on functional areas.
Each of these women assumed integral roles in the new organization: Casals took charge of player rankings, Karen Krantzcke headed tournament relations, Cecilia Martinez managed memberships, Hunt tackled disciplinary matters, while Stöve took on the financial reins. In a bid to streamline communication, regional representatives were appointed, including Ann Jones and Löfdahl-Bentzer for Europe, Judy Dalton for Australia and Asia and Patricia Bostrom representing the United States.
“As the resident hothead in the room, the newly elected board put me on the disciplinary committee,” Cynthia Doerner said. “They thought that by putting me in this particular role, I would become more responsible for my temperament on the court. It was a sobering experience.
“But the camaraderie between all the women in the room was great. I was a 21-year-old Aussie swept up in the course of events and loving the fact that we were creating something special. There was never a moment of doubt in my mind about joining. It was inspiring, and it was offering me an opportunity to have a real career in women’s professional tennis.”
Not all active players were present at the meeting, for various reasons. Some, notably those from the Soviet bloc countries, were held back by their federations. Others preferred to stay away from politics or felt a particular loyalty to the historic administrators of tennis and feared reprisals. Many supported the venture wholeheartedly but simply were not in town at the time.
But on July 3, King told the New York Times that Evert and Goolagong were among those who had promised to join the new association, and within weeks the body was 64-women strong, with players from 18 countries. This helped give King the bargaining power she needed to successfully argue for equal prize money at the 1973 US Open, a Grand Slam first, with deodorant brand Ban providing the additional funds to match the men’s purse.
Events at the Gloucester are now somewhat blurry for Stöve, who jokingly says she was “too busy stopping people from leaving."
But she adds, “I remember many other meetings that went until the early hours of the morning as we tried to make rules and procedures.”
This, she notes, was alongside playing without coaches, making their own travel arrangements and doing their laundry.
What’s certain is the unity King had so fervently lobbied for brought important wins in the months that followed. In 1974, the first full season of the WTA’s existence, the Virginia Slims events were sanctioned by the USLTA (albeit with Heldman bumped from the picture) and the two entities offered a circuit of 18 events across the United States, offering total prize money of just over $1 million. Under separate jurisdiction, another $900,000 was up for grabs at 23 international events, including the Grand Slam tournaments and the national championships of Italy, Germany and South Africa.
Finally liberated to play wherever they chose without fear of repercussions, the women's games began attracting unprecedented attention. To foster the rapidly growing business, Jerry Diamond was brought on board as the executive director. This period of expansion also witnessed a groundbreaking deal with CBS that led to the Virginia Slims tournament finals being aired during prime time in 1975.
If the rest is history, it remains extraordinary to King that she managed to capture the triple crown of singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon, two weeks after founding the WTA.
“I don’t know how I did it,” she said. “I think I was just relieved but also so energized by what we had done. Titles and wins are great, but let me tell you, the two things I’m most proud of in tennis is standing with the Original 9 in 1970 and the creation of the WTA in 1973.
“We have to keep moving forward, but we’re still the leading global sport for women. I don’t think people talk about it enough.”