ORIGINAL NINE SPOTLIGHT:
BILLIE JEAN KING
Steve Flink | July 30, 2020
In honor of the 50th anniversary of women's professional tennis, International Tennis Hall of Fame writer and historian Steve Flink is catching up with each member of the Original Nine for USTA.com. In his final interview, he talks with Billie Jean King.
In closing this series of fascinating interviews with the Original Nine, it is time to examine the most indispensable member of that groundbreaking contingent. Without Billie Jean King as the central figure among the players, without her extraordinarily vibrant brand of leadership, without her indefatigable fighting spirit, the women’s game today would be in a very different and lesser place.
Historian and Virginia Slims dress designer Ted Tinling referred to King reverentially as “Madame Superstar,” and that lofty label fit her well. As the women assembled at Houston in September of 1970, she had already established herself as an all-time great, winning three Wimbledon singles crowns in a row, residing at No. ADVERTISEMENT 1 in the world from 1966-68. She would later celebrate two more years indisputably at No. 1 in 1971 and 1972, and many authorities ranked her at the top in 1974. This was prior to the start of the official WTA rankings in 1975.
King captured the imaginations of fans everywhere she went with her intellectual brand of attacking tennis, seeking at every turn to reshape history by embracing goals and causes that were much larger than herself or her personal aspirations, striving to make a difference both on and off the court.
King has been deservedly lauded as not only the single most important female tennis player of all time, but also as perhaps the most significant athlete historically of either sex. To be sure, her career achievements on the court were far reaching. She won all four of the Grand Slam singles titles and secured 12 majors altogether, including six at Wimbledon and four at the U.S. Championships/US Open. She won 27 more majors in women’s and mixed doubles. King was a prolific achiever across the board, charismatic and commendable, deep thinking and cerebral, driven by private engines that took her almost anywhere she wanted to go.
King was recovering from knee surgery when the Original Nine was formed in Houston 50 years ago. She had not been able to play the US Open a few weeks earlier. But despite lingering issues with the knee, she played in that first Virginia Slims tournament in Houston, losing in the first round to Judy Tegart Dalton in straight sets. She proudly joined the eight other players to sign $1 pro contracts with the eminent Gladys M. Heldman, and by the following year, a tour was born.
In 1971, King was ubiquitous, making every appearance she could to promote the new circuit, playing her heart out on the court, winning 17 tournaments that season and establishing herself as the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in prize money in a year.
In this wide-ranging interview, King reflects on the people and events that made Houston possible. She takes us back to that seminal moment in the history of women’s tennis, shares her potent memories of that period, recollects how she looked at the future from her vantage point half a century ago, and reminisces about how it all came about and why she is so proud to have played such a prominent role in raising the profile of tennis. No wonder the US Open facility was renamed in 2006 the "USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center."
Steve Flink: What do you remember most about sitting down with Gladys Heldman, Rosie Casals and Nancy Richey at the US Open in 1970, as the move toward the first Virginia Slims tournament in Houston started to take shape?
Billie Jean King: You have to go back to January and February of 1970. Larry [her then husband] told me starting in 1968 [when Open tennis started] that the women players were going to lose. He said, “You don’t understand. The men are going to get rid of you.” He was totally right, and I was totally wrong. I knew all of these guys and adored them. But Larry was right. They basically told us to get lost. In February of 1970, Larry sent out a major letter to the top eight women players in the world and Gladys Heldman about where the game was going.
Larry had talked to me in January before sending out his letter, and we agreed that Gladys was the perfect person. People did try to get her to do something big [like a women’s tour] occasionally over the months in 1970, but she said no. There were all kinds of rumblings going on in ’70 because things were going south for women players. Larry was correct. And I saw the writing on the wall. Larry and I had done some things in publishing. We loved Gladys. She owned World Tennis Magazine, and because of the advertising in the magazine, she knew all of these CEOs from different companies who advertised.
Flink: Elaborate on that theme.
King: I have always said that relationships are everything. It is two people who really matter concerning the Original Nine: Gladys Heldman and Joe Cullman [chairman of the board at Philip Morris]. Without Gladys and Joe in our lives, forget it. Without them, it didn’t matter what we wanted. They made a huge difference. Our nine players were lucky to have them. Julie Heldman came in late, which is why she is missing in the original photo, but Gladys told us, “I called my kid. Julie is going to be part of this. So now there are nine of us!” If we had more time and if I had known the significance, I would have called Betty Stove, Frankie Durr and Ann Jones, but we had to get going. Things were happening so quickly, and poor Gladys went through so much with the USTA. She really did. We were fortunate that two people at the Houston Racquet Club—Delores Hornberger [the president of the Women’s Association at the Houston Racquet Club] and Jim Hight [president-elect of the Texas LTA]—stood by us and said they did not care what the USTA said—they would let us play a tournament there. They were fantastic.
Flink: Tell me about the meeting at Forest Hills during the US Open with you Gladys Heldman, Rosie Casals and Nancy Richey. What do you remember?
King: We sat down on the terrace. I think Gladys went in the locker room at one point and then came back and said something like, “I will do a tournament in Houston.” We started talking about whether we should boycott [the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles run by Jack Kramer] or not boycott, about what we should do. I always told Gladys to sign us up for a dollar because she said to me, “I can’t afford you guys.” And I said, “Yes, you can. It is not about the money. Just do it for a dollar.” Rosie, Ann Jones, Frankie Durr and myself had been contract pros in 1968.
Flink: Yes, with George MacCall.
King: That’s right. So I told Gladys, “Sign us for a dollar. It is just as binding as a trillion dollars.” She said to me, “You will do that?” And I said, “Of course we will. That is Rosie’s job, Nancy’s job and my job. We will get others to do it.” Patti Hogan was going to sign up, and she fell out. Originally I was not going to play because of my knee, but I took Patti’s place in the draw at Houston. I just had to play one match. I had just had the knee operation.
Flink: Exactly. You had to skip the US Open.
King: I was gimping around pretty bad. But I was very clear that we were at this historic moment. I am so happy I was able to participate in Houston. Rosie was playing great coming off her US Open final against Margaret Court. She really had a chance to beat Margaret in that match. It was great that she was the first champion we had, and she won Houston. That was wonderful. All of us were making a big commitment with that $1 bill.
I have to add that I had talked with [USLTA President] Alastair Martin five minutes before that photo was taken of us holding the $1 bills. I did it for two reasons—first, to ask him one more time if he would do a tour so that we would not have to do this. I told him, “I don’t want you to read about this in the newspapers tomorrow if we end up doing it. I want to have the courtesy to tell you that. But if you do tell us you will do a tour for us, I will go and tell everyone that we don’t have to sign this dollar bill.” He said, “No, we are not going to do a tour, and don’t sign up with those $1 bills, or we will suspend you.” I told Mr. Martin he had left us with no choice and that now we were definitely going to sign the dollar bills. This was a last-ditch effort. He made the decision for us by saying we were going to be suspended.
Flink: What was Gladys’ outlook?
King: Gladys had always started out to be the good guy in this who did not want to rock the boat. But then Jack Kramer [tournament director in Los Angeles] got her so pissed off. He kind of lied to her. Gladys was great, and she always made me laugh. She was so upset with Jack, and that was it. Then she said, “OK, we are going to have this tournament in Houston, and we are going to do it right.”
I was calling Larry all the time. I said to him, “Even if we get this to happen, then what? We have to get a tour.” That is the essence of how we felt. I told Larry we had to have an infrastructure, and Larry was saying it was going to be a problem. That is what I was worried about. I don’t know if the other players were. They might have been.
Flink: So then Larry King flew into Houston, and the players voted on whether he or Gladys would be the promoter?
King: That comes a little later. First, let me tell you that when I was finished talking with Alastair Martin, I came around this wall. I will never forget it. Everyone was lined up already for the photo of us holding the dollar bills, and they left a space for me, I believe, between Ziegenfuss and Richey, and either Valerie or Nancy handed me the $1. The photographers were ready to go. I literally got in the line, got the dollar and held my hand up. That is how fast things were moving for me personally. And I was like, “OK, guys, this is it. We can do this!” That is what I remember saying. Thank God we had Gladys’ smarts and we had photographers there. We needed videotape, but we didn’t get it. But we were so excited.
Flink: What was your state of mind?
King: I don’t know how the others felt, but personally I was scared and excited. I knew we had passion and purpose. We were really good together, all of the players. Each one of us was very different. We were all white, except for Rosie, who was Hispanic. Still, I felt if we ever got a tour started—which we did the following year—it would be for everybody.
Flink: Tell me about that meeting at the Heldman house in Houston to determine what would happen regarding Gladys and Larry and who would be the promoter moving into the future.
King: So we go to Gladys’ home and sit in her bedroom in that semicircle area, and I started telling the other women players, “We are not going to make a lot of money, but this is really for the future generations.” And here are the three things that we came up with that say everything. The WTA has kept this mantra. No. 1, for any girl born in the world, there will be a place to compete if she is good enough. No. 2, she will be recognized for her accomplishments, not only her looks. And No. 3, which was really important to us, [she would] be able to make a living. Those are the three things we dreamed about as a group—or at least that is my interpretation of what we wanted.
Flink: You were saying this at Gladys’ house that evening of the vote?
King: I said to the others at Gladys’ house that this isn’t really about us. I said it was about us a little, but more about future generations. My goal was that someday it could be worldwide. We wanted to make it global. I told them we should go for it and said we are not going to make the big bucks, but all of them said they didn’t care and they wanted to set up the future. Every single person was on board about that. Everybody was on the same page but gave their own opinions. The essence of it all was we had a goal. I will never forget how great that week was and the feeling when we left of being scared but also knowing we did the right thing. Everybody chimed in. This was our moment.
Flink: So how about Larry King flying into Houston to speak to the players that evening at Gladys’ house and Julie speaking on behalf of her mother?
King: The reason I was calling Larry to do that was because our goal was to get Gladys to do this. This had been going off and on since Larry wrote that letter in February, and Gladys kept saying she did not want to do it. Larry said that if Gladys thinks someone else is going to do it, she will be up in arms. So I asked Larry to put something together and come to Houston—and he and I talked this through. We thought Gladys would get upset and then she would do it because she is the one. Larry is not the one. I am not the one. Gladys is the one.
Flink: So this was a strategy to propel Gladys into doing it?
King: Correct. I know everyone has a different memory of this moment, but here is what I remember. Nobody knows this except probably Rosie. I didn’t say a word to anybody else. So Larry comes in and speaks to the players with his proposal at Gladys’ house, and we hire him. But we don’t have the contacts. We can’t do it. Julie jumps off the sofa and runs in to her mother. I looked at Larry, and he looked at me, and we are both thinking, “Please, Gladys, get really upset and do this.” So she comes into the room and says, “Well, Larry can’t run anything,” and then she says she wants to do it.
Flink: So you are saying Gladys walked into the room and said that, not Julie?
King: This is Gladys. Julie ran in and got Gladys and brought her in. I still remember where Gladys was, sitting to my right, and I am thinking, “Please say you want to do this.” And Gladys says, “Larry can’t promote. I am much better in business than him. I can do it.” Larry and I had to be cool, yet inside I am jumping up and down. So, as Larry has said, he was hired and fired in five minutes.
Flink: Was a formal vote then taken?
King: Yes. We did a formal vote. I don’t know if we did it on paper. I remember raising hands or that sort of thing. And, of course, it was 9-0 for Gladys. I was so happy because that let Larry off the hook. We are not in the same ballgame as Gladys at that time. So we are so happy. We all voted for Gladys, and there you go. We were off and running.
Flink: That leads to the next logical question: you alluded to the critical roles played by Gladys and Joe Cullman, who brought in Virginia Slims as the umbrella sponsor. What set Gladys and Joe apart as leaders?
King: They are both creative. Joe as a CEO had a vision. Gladys and Joe were friends. They were both members of the Century Club near White Plains, N.Y., and they had a really strong relationship. Joe used to help Arthur Ashe and all of these men before he helped women. Arthur did a monthly column in World Tennis Magazine every month, sponsored by Miller Brewing Company.
We just got lucky with Virginia Slims that cigarettes could no longer have commercials on television at the end of 1970. So they had all of this money they could put in elsewhere. Joe was basically a feminist. He was very much for the underdog. And he was looking at us as an underdog story. Joe was brilliant. The tournaments got organized so fast once Virginia Slims came in as sponsor. Their branding was amazing—not like it is today, but still great. With Gladys and Joe, we had terrific leadership. To get the tour, we needed that branding, and Joe came through with big bucks.
Flink: How about you and Larry in a business sense in those days.
King: Larry and I owned tournaments. In the beginning, they gave like five percent of the prize money to the tournaments. By year three or four, Virginia Slims started giving us 50 percent of the prize money, and they were also sending four to six people to your city in advance. They are paying all of those salaries, not us. Eventually I think they gave us 100 percent of the prize money. I think we ended up owning or partially owning eight tournaments at one time. Larry and I had already run two tournaments in the ‘60s for fun.
Flink: Rosie Casals said some interesting things in my interview with her about how she was aligned with you in many ways but you had your differences of opinion. She said you two did not see eye to eye at times.
King: Of the eight other players, Rosie is my closest friend. We are still very close today. Rosie is great, but we didn’t always see eye to eye. I had a very different take on things. Rosie was much more into action quickly and not worrying about consequences. Followers basically choose leaders, don’t you think?
King: So they were saying I should be the leader [among the players], which I embraced 100 percent. This was our chance. In history, things are happening quickly, but when you are living it, it is slow. It is actually slow but fast.
Rosie is great because people love her. She makes them laugh. She can be very critical, yet hilarious at the same time. I do agree with her that it would have been easier for some players back then to talk to her than to me, but she would always tell me what was going on, and she was basically my partner in crime.
Flink: You had an incredible season in 1971 in the first full year of the Virginia Slims Tour. You won 17 tournaments and became the first female athlete to make $100,000 in a single year.
King: I made a goal in the fall of 1970. I told Larry then that if we had this Virginia Slims Tour—which it looked like we would—that I am going to make $100,000 because that will get attention for our sport. I said, “It will kill me probably, trying to do that, but I have to try.” We didn’t have Margaret Court then, and we didn’t have Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova yet. We didn’t have Evonne Goolagong on our tour yet.
Flink: But you did make well over $100,000, and you won those 17 tournaments. You had so much on your plate back then. How satisfying was that?
King: If you look at what I was making, it was more than Johnny Bench and a lot of the great baseball players. Willie Mays was making $150,000 and I made $117,000. So I was in that higher echelon, even for men’s sports. That is what people understand. They understand money. It is about the message, as well as the actual money. When I got there, it did get a lot of attention. As I started getting closer to the $100,000 mark, people were going, “Woah, a woman athlete is going to make $100,000. What is going on here?”
Virginia Slims had a whole day to celebrate it, and President Nixon called to congratulate me. It gave us a lot of excitement for the next year, as well. I didn’t realize until probably the last year or two how important that was when I did that in ‘71.
Flink: Then you had an incredible 1972, winning three of the four majors. Was that the best tennis you ever played?
King: Yes, ‘72 was my best tennis, but you have to remember that we didn’t care as much about the majors back then. We cared about the tour.
Flink: Fair enough. But you still won those three majors convincingly that year. Were you feeling very secure about the Virginia Slims circuit at that time?
King: Absolutely not. I had some insecurity with never really knowing what will happen. I am not like that, anyway. You have to keep the pedal to the metal constantly. You have your breaks, but it is a lot of sprints and rests. But I was constantly thinking about the end result, which was huge money globally and women athletes appreciated. I always had this vision going through my head during those days of what I wanted to achieve. But, yes, I did play my best tennis that year. You are right.
Flink: Why was that?
King: Playing a lot just makes you better. In those days, we played 75 percent of the time on grass. I was a serve-and-volleyer. If I was a kid today, I would not have the same point of view or game, technique, strings, etc. Also, at the same time, I was worried that we were separate from the men. I kept telling everybody in the locker room that I felt we had to be together. We have to have the top talent together.
Flink: You were conveying that to everybody?
King: All the time. I realized in that period we had to have our own association, so finally four days before Wimbledon in 1973, we had a meeting [to form the WTA], and a lot of people showed up. Thank God, because I didn’t know who was going to show up. We worked hard to lobby the players and get them there. I said we could not just have American players—this is for everybody in the world. We had to get Europeans, Australians and South Africans. We had to have at least five continents represented. The great thing before this WTA meeting was that Larry was a lawyer. He was really helpful, and he did the bylaws for the WTA before we started the meeting. Looking back, that was huge.
All of the media was waiting in the lobby of the Gloucester Hotel in London, where we were meeting, and they thought we were meeting about the ATP boycott. I explained we were not there for that. I went to Arthur Ashe and talked to him about me going to the women to see if we could boycott with them, and he said something like, “We don’t care what you do.” I went to a couple of other men players, and they also said no. So we were into Plan B, and we had two tours, which I thought was never going to work.
Flink: But it was still crucial that you formed the WTA and you were the first president.
King: We had to be together. I got up and said, “This is the last time I am going to talk to everybody, and we have to be together. That is the only way we are going to be successful as women and in women’s sports.” Everybody raised their hand in agreement. I was shocked. Rosie was supposed to bring a tape recorder. I wanted us to have the audio for historical reasons. I asked her to bring two tape recorders so we would have a backup. She told me, “Old lady, it worked. The tape recorder worked.” But later she told me it didn’t work. She is hilarious.
So we elected our officers that day. Virginia Wade was playing on the other tour we had then, run by the USTA, but I said we needed both tours represented and had to bring everybody together. So Virginia was elected vice president. I was worried about that because I didn’t know if it was going to last. And, of course, a few weeks later she resigned. When everybody left, we had our association. That was exciting in 1973, when we did it. The USTA finally realized that Philip Morris was worth 50 times what the whole sport of tennis was. They were not going to let up. These people at Philip Morris, led by Joe Cullman and Ellen Merlo—they were for us way beyond the sponsorship. They were for us as human beings. I think the USTA saw that they were not going to win this battle. Joe and Gladys had made such a commitment to us.
Flink: Talk more about what happened with the emergence of Evert and Navratilova in the forefront of the game.
King: We started mentoring Chris and Martina a lot. Without them, the tour would not have grown the way it did. I remember in 1974, when Chris played the tournament Larry and I had in San Francisco at the Pacific Auditorium, people were lined up around the block in San Francisco to see her play. When Larry and I saw that, we were saying, “Oh, my God.” It was Chris America. She was so fantastic, and then she had the great rivalry with Martina. They played 80 times, and it came out almost even.
Flink: It was 43-37 for Martina in the end.
King: It doesn’t even matter. Eighty times is incredible, and it was so close. The contrast in styles was great. I remember our Original Nine reunion in Charleston in 2012. I was at the podium with all of the players all lined up, and Chris and Martina were there, as well. They had played an exo. I asked them to come up and join us, and they wondered why. They were looking at each other. I said, “We are celebrating our reunion, and I want everyone to understand why the tour has made it to the extent that it has. It is because we are the transition generation going from amateurism to professionalism. The first generation of pros is Chris, Martina, Jimmy Connors and that group. Chris and Martina put tennis on another level and helped grow it. We were so lucky to have those two.”
We mentored them like crazy. Poor Chris—I told her she had to become the president of the WTA. I said, “We will all help you. The Original Nine will help you, but you have to do this. You are the one.” She did it for many years, and we laugh about it. Chris and Martina are so different, and each is so great. Chris is more measured, and Martina doesn’t care about the consequences. She backs up later.
Flink: Martina is more like Rosie?
Flink: Put the Original Nine in perspective and what it means to you to have been such an important part of it. Where would tennis be today if you all had not taken the bold step?
King: Here, we have to say women’s tennis, rather than tennis, because the men were in good shape. They had the “old boy” network. I think we could still be maybe making one twentieth of what the men do.
But in so many ways, it has been such a joy. We, as the Original Nine, were not doing it for ourselves. Without it, I would not have been who I am. Never in 100 years would I have had the life I have without the nine of us all sticking together. Most of us still stay in touch. There is a bond there when we see each other that you can never take from anybody.
I have to say that I really love Kerry Reid and Judy Dalton. They are Australian, and when they signed the $1 contract, they were suspended by their association from ever playing in Australia again. Every Australian player should go up to them and thank them profusely.
I can’t say enough about all of the players I joined to form the Original Nine. I would not have had my life without the nine of us, and if you don’t have Joe and Gladys, it doesn’t happen.
Flink: You hold all of the other players in such high regard.
King: Here is how I feel. The other eight players don’t get enough credit. I get too much. It was a real team effort, and sometimes I am too celebrated. We are trying to organize celebrations all over the world. Ilana Kloss is working on that. The reason I want that is so the others are appreciated. These players are friends, and they have the friendships through thick and thin. Their passion and purpose makes me so proud. When I see that Serena has made $92 million just in official prize money, I always go back to the $1 bill. One dollar has turned into millions and millions of dollars.