Julie Heldman was in the room where it happened. And she has something to say about it.
A member of the Original 9 and daughter of one of the foundational figures in the formation of women's tennis, Gladys Heldman, Julie Heldman was 25-years-old when she got word that the USTA was threatening to ban the nine women who were prepared to sign a $1 dollar contract with Gladys to play the Virginia Slims Invitational at the Houston Racquet Club. Her reaction was swift.
"I came to the club to find out what was going on because I was gonna cover it for a newspaper," Heldman said on the WTA Insider Podcast. "I get there and I find out what's happening and I said I got to play it. If they're gonna be suspended, I will be suspended too. We'll be in this together. It was a total act on all nine of us of women's solidarity.
"We will do this together and they're going to kick us out. We'll do it on our own."
But the groundwork for what would eventually become the WTA Tour wasn't all fun and games. That's where Heldman's memoir, Driven: A Daughter's Odyssey, comes in. Released in August 2018, Heldman's memoir details her difficult relationship to the game and the tour, heightened and exacerbated by her own struggles with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a toxic relationship with her mother.
"I think that part of my ideal is to be as truthful as I can, my own truth," Heldman said. "I think a lot of books from that era came out of more publicity than truth.
"My truth was so complicated and sometimes, so very difficult. Part of the reason I wrote it, a big part, was to tell the world my life really was very different from what you thought it might have been."
Hear Heldman, in her own words, reflect on the early days of women's tennis, how her mental illness impacted her career and her life, and why she has nothing but hope for a better future for all.
On why she wrote Driven: A Daughter's Odyssey:
I grew up in a tennis family. My mother was one of the most famous contributors of all time, essential to the beginning of women's tennis. I was always proud of what she'd done. And yet she was a highly narcissistic mother who chose a victim child. And I was the victim, the runt of the litter, and nobody saw it because it was hidden. We were not allowed to talk about it. It was not shown outside the family. And that very complex mix that started when I was so very little. Life is very difficult, but nobody says my life is this difficult. They don't understand.
As I grew up a lot of things changed. I finished my tennis career. I'd had enough by the age of just before 30, and then I did a bunch of different things. I did broadcasting, I went to law school, I became a lawyer, I became a businesswoman, I became a mother, and a wife. And as the years went along, I began to discover I was running into lots of difficult problems.
At the age of 50, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which more likely than not started out when I was 18. There were signs of it, yet all those years of not getting the kind of help that I needed, four years after I was diagnosed, I had a cataclysmic breakdown that lasted nearly 15 years. So I was not in a place where I could actually write during most of those years. I was living life at full speed, driven at everything I touched. But once I had the breakdown, I was no longer able to be driven. So I had to live life slower and live life as somebody who could hardly function for many of those years.
Towards the beginning of that period I took a class in writing and I thought, Oh this is good. It was short story writing, which would be fiction, but I didn't want to write fiction. I wanted all from the start to write about myself. Once I became well enough to write, it came pouring out of me, pouring out of me with four or five hours a day of working, writing, rewriting, rewriting.
But I needed to write it. I needed to write about my life with my mother and how wonderful she was in the tennis world and what the tennis world was like. You were living in the 60s and 70s and people don't know that it was extraordinary. And so this book needed to get written.
On the formation of the tour:
During the Pre-Open Era, I got to travel as much as I wanted and I went all over the world. I went to Israel, I went to Russia, I went to Japan, I went to Australia, I went to South America. That's what I loved. I loved traveling. You don't get to see a whole lot when you're playing a tournament but you get the feel of the place and the ambiance and what is going on.
So that was a joy that was kind of taken away when I decided to join, play, and be part of the very first tournament of what became the women's pro tour in Houston in 1970. There was a tournament in Los Angeles where the prize money differential for the men to the women was 8 to 1. Billie Jean, Rosie, and Nancy Richie went to my mother and said you have been a wonderful promoter, help us. She put together a tournament in no time flat, with a lot of help with people in Houston, but she is the one who was pushing all edges and all bits of it.
As the women were about to fly to Houston, the United States Tennis Association, then called the U.S.L.T.A, started phoning everybody and said if you go there we will suspend you and you won't be able to play any other tournaments. I was the only Heldman at home when that was happening, and they were saying OK this just happened, so I said hold on, my mother's coming.
When she came she decided she put the tournament together, and in order to protect the women players and to protect the tournament site itself, the Houston Racquet Club, she signed everybody to a one dollar contract. I was not part of the original photo because I wasn't gonna play. I was injured.
I came to the club to find out what was going on because I was gonna cover it for a newspaper. I get there and I find out what's happening and I said I got to play it. If they're gonna be suspended, I will be suspended too. We'll be in this together. And it was a total act on all nine of us of women's solidarity. We will do this together and they're going to kick us out. We'll do it on our own. And we knew we had my mother.
My mother brought in Virginia Slims. I never had a chance to ask her, but it was almost for sure that it was figured out in advance, that if everything goes terribly wrong Virginia Slims will join in and it did. They did not put much money in but they got their publicity people in there and they made this a real event.
The first couple of years on tour, everything was just catch as catch can. At any arena that would have us, a few thousand dollars. We'd stay at people's homes. We talked to any reporters that came around. We were invited to TV stations. The men, because they were all only men who were the sports reporters, had no idea what women's tennis is about. Not a clue. We all learned to take over. You start telling them all that you want. You'll see this person play, she has a great forehand, that one will go to the net. We had to give clinics every week. We had to go to cocktail parties - my least favorite thing - but I had to do it in order to make this tour happen.
From the very start, we all believed in it. Some of the top players did not join. They did not want to. We still believed in it. As my mother kept getting more and more money and Billie Jean was this charismatic star and Virginia Slims threw everything out there, it came to life. It happened. But no, we were not these famous stars with millions of dollars. We started it.
I did not think it would end up like this. It was just OK, one step at a time, and each step at a time there was more money every week. The very first tournament was $5,000. By the following summer, there's a $40,000 tournament. By the year after that it was a $100,000 tournament, which was on TV! A women's only tournament on TV, the Family Circle Cup, which existed for many, many years.
On struggling with mental illness as a player:
Pre-Open Era, I did pretty well and eventually, I got twice ranked No.5 in the world. I was on the tour to have fun. But there were times that my life was such an emotional and mental disaster and I still played through it.
One of the more striking times was in 1966 I played in the Fed Cup. Billie Jean played number one singles for the U.S., I played number two singles, and I was in horrible emotional condition. I would play my matches, I won all my matches, and I'd go in the room every night and I'd be flooded with suicidal thoughts. I can't go on.
I get up the next morning, I'd slap my hand against my leg and out I went and tried as hard as I could. It took a lot of emotional energy what I was going through. It made me more tired. But I still wanted to win. So that didn't happen very often in that way but there were some times during my playing days.
I didn't know. I never knew. When I was suffering alone in my room during the Fed Cup, I didn't know. I just thought it was something I got to get through. Actually about a month or two after that I had a setback. I was playing on the Whiteman Cup Team, USA vs. Great Britain, and I was chosen for the team but I wasn't chosen to play. It hit me so hard that I could not stop crying and I'm thinking, OK this is tennis, tennis is the problem, I have to quit. So I quit for a year and a half.
But it wasn't tennis only. Tennis was a piece of it. So it is not so easy to tease the pieces apart because they're all part of us. If you hit that many tennis balls on the tennis court and you run around that much, it's got to be a part of whatever it is who you are. But at least the voice inside of me at that stage said no you can't go on. But unfortunately, eventually when I had a massive breakdown that wasn't like maybe yes, maybe no. I could not function.
On how the process of dealing with mental illness in sports has changed:
Well, how I dealt with it at the time as a player was a product of my childhood. I had fairly constant asthma up until I was like 10 or 11, called asthma bronchitis, which was never taken care of. That was part of that neglect that happened to me. I played tournaments playing a point and then I'd win or lose a point I double over, hack my guts out, and play the next point. It's just what I did. It was a matter of always pushing through.
In terms of mental health, there wasn't a soul who understood anything about it in that era, and certainly that's a big difference from now, where a lot more is known.
But there's several aspects. The stigma. I've been thinking about this a bunch recently. One is, I have no problem saying I have a mental illness. I have bipolar. But I do have a problem when the symptoms come on and I don't want people to see. But now, not only are there words out there, there are medicines. I'm hoping that younger people who are out there now are more able to ask for help because there is help around.
We traveled without coaches, without real medical situations to help out. Now, at least there's somebody in it. I'm totally certain it depends on what kind of a relationship you have. If somebody is pushing you as hard as possible, it's pretty hard to say I can't do it because I'm not feeling well.
I didn't have somebody who was pushing me as hard as possible. I had this duality. I was straddling a razor's edge. Damned if I won and damned if I lost, because if I won, my mother might undermine me. If I lost I felt horrified. I really am the runt of the litter. So there was nowhere really for me to turn.
As I grew older and as some people were very kind to me, I began to get help. But I had been undiagnosed from ages 18 to 50. It's really hard then to walk back those steps and say, OK of course I want help. I was frightened. I think a lot of people may still be that way because of this sort of strange thing, the stigma of what mental illness brings. What is really happening to me? How can I tell anybody what it is?
The only thing I can say is you need to talk to friends or get help, because help is available. You need to get the right kind of help and you may not know what the right kind of help is, but it's out there and the biggest thing is knowing that somebody cares and somebody can help you.
On what she hopes readers take away from her book:
I wrote the book as we said to tell my story, but as many people have told me, my story is one of facing obstacles, falling down, and getting back up again. That's pretty much every tennis player. A story about every woman who's played tennis will have run into that. But it is also important to know where this big tour came from and what were some of the pitfalls along the way.
One person said to me, if your mother hadn't been there, women's tennis would have been this great anyway. I don't think so. I think she was a necessary part. I think Billie Jean was a necessary part. I think Virginia Slims was a necessary part. And a lot of things grew from there.
I think that the women in my era, we really were outcasts. We had muscles. Girls in my high school did not have muscles. Some of the people on tour were lesbians, and that you could not talk about. And there was so much that was different in the culture. In that time there'd been huge cultural changes.
What I see more of now is opening up, where more people are able to say OK I'm different but I have a lot of people who are different like me. In our era you had to be more the same. And we weren't the same.
We truly all believed early on we could make this happen. But it was not an easy road.
Some of the early tournaments, you play indoors. There was a little light going over the court, so you couldn't even lob! Sometimes the Xerox guy called a line! And the lights sucked! And practice? Oh, forget it. Go find an outdoor court. The indoor courts are where we play the matches.
It all had to grow. And there were enough good people and people of good caring who put it together.