The former world No.5, Italian Open champion and Fed Cup rep reflects on the Original 9's gathering in Charleston.
WTA Staff

CHARLESTON, SC, USA - On Sept. 23, 1970, a group of nine women put their careers on the line at a ground-breaking women's professional tennis tournament in Houston, Texas. I'm proud to say I was one of those women. Today, we're known as the "Original 9" - our names are Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Val Ziegenfuss, and me. Strong-willed women all.

From the start of Open Tennis in 1968, the game's ruling body (then called the United States Lawn Tennis Association), was dominated by men who saw little value in women's tennis. The USLTA kept increasing the schedules and the prize money for the men players, while shrinking those of the women. It got so bad that the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles in September 1970 announced a prize money ratio of 8 to 1 in favor of the men.

Outraged, the women pros turned for help to my mother, Gladys Heldman, the publisher of the influential World Tennis magazine, a fearless supporter of women's tennis, and an extraordinary promoter of tennis events. She leaped into the fray, rapidly organizing a women's tournament in Houston, Texas to compete with the Los Angeles event. The men in power at first verbally approved the Houston event, perhaps figuring these uppity women would fail. But when the tournament was about to start, the USLTA made an about face, threatening any Houston competitor with suspension. That would have meant expulsion from all major events, including the Grand Slams. Despite these dire threats, we didn't waiver.

In September 1970, Gladys Heldman put on a tournament for the ages. Billie Jean, the drawing card, played even though she was still recovering from knee surgery. I was also injured, but I played one point out of solidarity with the women. Rosie won that first tournament, beating Judy in the finals.

Our act of courage sparked the beginning of a revolution in women's pro tennis, and eventually in all of women's sports.

Flash forward 42 years to Charleston in April 2012. For only the second time in all those years, the Original 9 held a reunion, and it was a doozy. The Family Circle Cup and the WTA outdid themselves. They flew us in, put us up at the five-star Charleston Place Hotel, had our hair and makeup done, and thrust us in front of the cameras. We were showered with gifts, feted at a buffet for 300, honored on stage at a ballroom dinner for 700, and presented on the tournament's stadium court on Saturday night.

WTA CEO Stacey Allaster and her staff showed us how a top-notch organization is run. That was a long way, baby, from the early days of the women's pro tour.

Houston was the first tournament of the women's pro tour, whose first title sponsor was Virginia Slims cigarettes. During that first year, the nine of us were joined by other rebel women players, and there was a feeling of togetherness amongst us all.

That's not to say we were all lovey-dovey. We were also out to beat the socks off each other. But we were in the trenches together. Dim lights and low ceilings challenged our skills. We drummed up interest by tirelessly teaching clinics, attending cocktail parties, and giving interviews. When attendance was low, we'd even snag passing pedestrians to come on in and watch. At the time, newspapers didn't understand how the words "women" and "athletes" could go together, so they often sent fashion reporters to cover us. They liked our dresses but didn't know a forehand from a serve.

But with my mother orchestrating the tournaments, Billie Jean winning most of them and playing the press like a Stradivarius, and the rest of us trying our damndest to be the next star in the wings, that first year was something special.

So that's the backdrop to our weekend in Charleston. When Peachy Kellmeyer emailed us to say the reunion was on, all nine of us accepted within the hour. We had missed each other. We'd gone through so much together. No one could understand us as well as our old rebel pals.

The only person missing from the group that started modern women's pro tennis was my mother, who had died in 2003. But she was there in spirit, as one-by-one the Original 9 praised her incredible contribution to women's tennis, and the WTA honored her with the Georgina Clark Mother Award, which I accepted on her behalf.

Because the Original 9's competitive days were long gone, we could just spend time talking about our lives and reminiscing. In Charleston I went to kiss Nancy Richey on the cheek, and she laughed and said, "We wouldn't have kissed each other back then." The two of us were too busy having three-hour, knock-down, drag-em-out, backcourt marathons.

We were all looking forward to Charleston, but no one was prepared for just how magical the reunion would be. It wasn't just the honors, though frankly they were pretty wonderful. And it wasn't just the gratitude of former and current champions for what we had done.

It was seeing Val, who is now a successful real estate agent in San Diego, and who has retained her wonderful smile. And Peaches, the greatest junior player ever, who has bravely struggled with illness and adores her young granddaughter. And Kristy, who has become a cowgirl in Idaho, where she and her husband John have a ranch for teaching needy children to ride horses.

And Judy, the irrepressible "Old Fruit," the instigator of the reunion, who came the farthest, flying in with her daughter Sam from Australia. And Kerry, the other Aussie, who met South Carolina native Raz Reid while playing World Team Tennis in the 70s, married him, and adopted the state as her own. And Nancy, once a relentless competitor and now a quiet source of strength to her friends, mother, and brother Cliff, who accompanied her to Charleston. And height-challenged Rosie, the first winner of the Family Circle Cup, always fearless, feisty, and quick with a quip. And of course Billie Jean, still and always a champ, the first great star of the first women's pro tour, who can't walk down the street without being mobbed by adoring fans.

Saturday night, our last in Charleston, we stayed up past midnight signing mementos for each other and for the WTA, and none of us wanted to leave, so that we could squeeze out another few minutes with each other.

We've all vowed to stay in touch, and we're already talking about the next reunion, when we can once again laugh and talk and treasure old times. Rosie says we shouldn't wait another 40 years, because it'll be too late. We're strong-minded women. We won't wait.

- Julie Heldman, April 2012

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