LONDON -- The penthouse reception at the swanky Chelsea Harbour Hotel is on the verge of deteriorating into disorganization when the voice of a generation -- several, in fact -- cuts through the chaos.
Turning to a handful of photographers and the ubiquitous Netflix camera crew, Billie Jean King asks, “Where do you want us?”
Waving her tennis trailblazing peers into a tighter formation, she adds, “Come on, come on, bring it in.”
On Friday, 50 years after she oversaw the birth of the Women’s Tennis Association, King was still leading her troops. Today’s Hologic WTA Tour owes much to King and her considerable court and this was a day to celebrate their contributions to tennis -- and, in a larger context, women’s sports.
“Slide over and let the old lady in,” Rosie Casals said from an already crowded couch at the Chelsea Harbor Hotel, referring to King, her old doubles partner.
Thirteen of the 60 or so women who were in the room when the WTA was born were on hand to bask in the buzz in what amounted to an uplifting four-hour victory lap.
“Hmm,” said Betty Stove, sniffing an ancient metal Slazenger racquet. “It smells like it’s been in mothballs -- just like us.”
King recounted the landscape that led to the historic meeting:
“Times were very tumultuous,” she said. "The prize money was terrible for us. Rod Laver made 2,000 pounds in ’68, and I made 750. June 21st was a Thursday before Wimbledon in 1973. One of the big reasons everybody showed up was that most of us were staying at the Gloucester Hotel -- it was the first time we got a free room, and we were over the moon.
“We were very excited but also scared … what if nobody shows up?”
Later Friday morning, the gathering had an undeniable energy, as the players gathered in small circles, catching up and trading gossip. Clearly, they still enjoy each other’s company.
King, who famously said that pressure is a privilege, added another burden to that category.
“We’ve earned them,” said the 79-year-old after yet another group photograph. “We’ve earned these wrinkles.”
King continued, now focused on that day 50 years ago:
“I went to Betty [Stove], our big strong one. I said, ‘Please stand by the door and don’t let anyone in -- or out.’ Everybody thought we were keeping the media out -- nooo! We were keeping the players in!
"Everyone raised their hands and said yes, everyone put their signatures down and voted for our officers. We had an association and we walked out. I was ecstatic.”
The players clambered onto a classic red double-decker bus that would take them to the Gloucester Hotel. The route took them along the Thames, past the tethered houseboats, then a quick left up Oakley Street, with its Mary Poppins roofs and the Chelsea Fire Station. The fearless driver (incredibly) managed to avoid contact in a number of tight traffic spots.
Patricia Bostrum, who was in that room, said the formation of the WTA had a snowball effect:
“Billie Jean went to the Grand Slams and said, ‘We need equal prize money.’ And the Grand Slam tournaments said, ‘No, no, no -- we can’t do that.’ And so finally, with the support of all of us [WTA members], she went to the US Open and said, ‘I will not play unless there’s equal prize money. She’s No.1 in the world, she has all of us behind her,’ and the US Open said, `Yes, we will have equal prize money for women.’
"This notion of equal prize money turned into equal pay for women. So now, all of a sudden, people were asking why there wasn’t equal pay for all women. So what she’s done, with this notion of equal prize money for Wimbledon, I believe, has gone on to help equal pay for women everywhere."
The bus continued past the Kensington tube station, the Hoop and Toy pub at Thurloe Place and the Museum of Natural History. Those sitting in the open-air second deck ducked nonchalantly as tree branches, laden with leaves, brushed their heads.
There was a strategic (and lengthy) stop between Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Gardens -- a scenic backdrop for all the content capturers on board. No photo possibility went unexplored.
“Let’s get this train moving,” one of the players said. “I’m getting hungry.”
Even with all the turmoil of the moment, King somehow managed to focus on tennis. She swept her events at 1973 Wimbledon, winning singles (over Chris Evert), doubles with Casals and mixed doubles with Owen Davidson.
“The reason I won the triple crown was because I was so happy we had an association,” King said. “I was just thinking `We did it! We did it!’”
After arriving at the Gloucester (now Gloucester Millennium) Hotel, the players were delighted by a gallery featuring 50-year-old photos of themselves around the moment of creation. American Ann Kiyomura and Australian Pam Whytcross were both only 19 years old.
King, in the struggle for equality, said she had three basic themes in her mind:
1) Any girl that was born in this world, if she’s good enough, will finally have a place to compete.
2) That we be appreciated for our accomplishments, not only for our looks.
3) To make a living, playing the sport we love.
The celebration ended with a poignant 90-minute production featuring insights from the players who were there. WTA Tour CEO Steve Simon and president Micky Lawler were also on hand, along with current players Tatjana Maria (the Wimbledon 2022 semifinalist) and her two daughters, Charlotte and Cecilia, and 2017 US Open champion and WTA Council member Sloane Stephens and husband Jozy Altidore, along with Judy Murray, mother of two boys, Andy and Jamie Murray, who were No.1 in singles and doubles, respectively, in 2016.
Ilana Kloss was an 11-year-old ball girl in South Africa when King and Casals played a match there. She was later part of the history at the Gloucester and today remains King’s partner of more than 40 years.
“She really wants the best for everybody else,” Kloss said. “When she formed the WTA, she was earning money under the table and doing just fine. But for her, it was always important to bring everybody along and make it better for everybody. Because we were all in it together.
“As she says, she’s not done yet. We look forward to the future, and we’re really excited to be part of a special history.”
Frenchwoman Francoise Durr, who won 50 singles titles (including Roland Garros 1967) and 60 in doubles, nicely framed the camaraderie that existed then -- and now.
“We can spend hours together, telling stories,” she said. “It was a very difficult moment, but it was fun to be part of that and see what we could do. We are family.”
We’ll leave it to Casals, who won seven Grand Slams as King’s doubles partner, to put a bow on the celebration.
“I think we were fortunate to find someone like [King] to lead women’s tennis,” Casals said. “You come back 50 years later, even if the room’s not the same, and even if we don’t quite look the same.
“There’s something that really binds us together, all the things we did together. We believed in one another, supported one another. Played one another, beat one another, lost, cried, practiced -- we did it all together. It’s been a great sorority we see the younger ones coming along. It’s been a great journey, a great partnership, friendship.
“We all are together still,” she added, making a fist, “for the fight for equality.”