The “Original Nine” And The Beginning Of Modern Women’s Professional Tennis
In the first year of Open Era, which marked the start of professional tennis in the modern era, the 1968 Wimbledon tournament became the second Grand Slam chamipionship to award prize money. Billie Jean King and Rod Laver went on to win the women’s and men’s singles championship, which they both won in the past as amateurs. It was a historic moment, but Laver’s victory was seemingly valued higher than King’s; he won £2000 for the title, while King earned £750.
“I didn’t have any idea we were going to get different prize money,” King said in an interview for the PBS documentary American Masters. “I thought it was totally unfair.”
In addition to large pay disparities among men and women, the tour held more men’s events than women, leaving women with fewer opportunities to compete professionally. Rather than sit passively and endure unequal treatment, King turned to businesswoman and publisher of World Tennis magazine, Gladys Heldman, for help. Heldman created a rival tour in Houston, exclusively for women, to coincide with the timing of the Pacific Southwest tournament run by Jack Kramer.
Alongside King, eight other professional tennis players signed up for the tournament, including Rosie Casals, Kristy Pigeon, Peaches Bartkowicz, Gladys’s daughter Julie Heldman, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Dalton, Nancy Richey, and Kerry Melville. In a symbolic gesture, Heldman signed each of the women for $1 professional contracts. The tournament protested sexism in professional tennis. King reassured Heldman this was not about the money, but about making a stand.
“Prior to our tournament in Houston that was put together by Gladys Heldman, we had a number of group talks in the weeks before with other players to see where they stood and what they wanted to do. There were different opinions about how to move forward, but Gladys in combination with Billie Jean King were able to rally the women to take a stand,” Kristy Pigeon told Steve Flink for USOpen.org There really was no place for women to take a stand until Gladys put the Houston tournament together. It happened reasonably fast, but in my eyes the research done beforehand to test the waters of how the public felt about men’s tennis versus women’s tennis from a spectator standpoint was important.”
Despite the risk of being permanently banned from Grand Slams and shunned by the rest of the professional tennis community, the “Original Nine” forged ahead with their alternative tournament, which was greatly helped by a timely sponsorship from Virginia Slims cigarettes. Though the women were not thrilled to help with the advertisement of cigarettes, they were grateful for the support. The tournament was a success, with Rosie Casals taking the title and laying the groundwork for the future of women’s tennis, which was what the whole tournament experiment was about.
“For us, it was making a living. It was being able to say that I am a woman athlete and this is what I do,” Julie Heldman told the New York Times, forty years after the tournament.
Three years later in 1973, after the continuation of what would become the Virginia Slims Invitational, Billie Jean King helped create the Women’s Tennis Association, and women and men were offered equal prize money at the U.S. Open for the first time in history. As of 2020, the WTA’s purse is more than $96 million and female tennis players are among the highest-paid female athletes in the sports world.
“We had no idea that this little dollar would turn into millions,” Rosie Casals told ESPN in reference to the Original Nine’s signing fee.
The “Original Nine’s” courage has helped female athletes in many sports justify their battle for equality. From inspiring the U.S. Women’s National soccer team to fight for living wages to encouraging women’s hockey to form their Dream Gap Tour, King and her eight compatriots have helped make athletics more equitable for women around the world.
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