Original Nine Spotlight:
Steve Flink | March 11, 2020
In honor of the 50th anniversary of women's professional tennis, International Tennis Hall of Fame writer and historian Steve Flink will be doing Q&As with each member of the Original Nine for USTA.com over the next few months. In his first interview, he talks with Julie Heldman.
In many ways, Julie M. Heldman was the most knowledgeable and multi-faceted member of the esteemed “Original Nine” of women’s tennis. Her mother, Gladys, was the founder and editor of the prestigious World Tennis Magazine. Gladys conceptualized the almost unthinkable notion of professionalism and a separate circuit for the female players, signing these groundbreaking competitors to $1 contracts in 1970 and creating a platform for them to succeed on their own. This was at a time when male promoters—most prominently the highly regarded Jack Kramer at the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles—were convinced that women players had very little, if any, drawing power.
Gladys Heldman was the driving force behind the original Virginia Slims circuit, but Julie was intimately involved as a participant and a powerful crusader in her own right.
Julie Heldman was a masterful strategist who intellectualized the sport with a depth few in her craft could equal. No one played better chess on a tennis court; she was a magnificent match player. Heldman was a perennial Top-10 player in the 1960s and ‘70s, and climbed to high points of No. 2 in the United States and the Top 5 in the world during an outstanding career.
In a far-reaching interview, Julie reflects on the 50th anniversary of the inaugural tournament in Houston but also addresses other relevant and related topics, speaking with her usual clarity, conviction and unmistakable wisdom.
Steve Flink: Nobody understands the formation of the Original Nine better than you and how it changed women’s tennis so comprehensively. How would you make it understandable for a 22-year-old follower of the game today with only a superficial knowledge of tennis history?
Julie Heldman: We have to go back two years to the beginning of Open tennis, when there was really almost no money for anybody, but certainly not for women. I won the Italian Open in 1969 and got $800. The following year, there was literally a total of $5,000 in prize money for the women—other than what my mother gave, which was two $5,000 contributions—from January to September of 1970. Since Open tennis had come along, the tennis world was being run by men who were largely volunteers. Some were promoters. Nobody wanted to give any money to the women. We were being squeezed off. We had nowhere to go.
Flink: What was the role of Jack Kramer in spurring the women on?
Heldman: Jack decided his prize-money ratio in Los Angeles would be 8-to-1 for men versus women because he said people didn’t buy tickets to see women players. That is when Billie Jean [King], Rosie Casals and Nancy Richey went to my mother at the beginning of the 1970 US Open, and they all had lunch. Billie Jean and Rosie thought the best thing to do would be to have a boycott. But a boycott wasn’t working. So my mother put together a tournament in Houston.
We were at the edge of our existence as competitive players, though women had been great draws since the 1920s and even before, with May Sutton Bundy. But certainly starting with Suzanne Lenglen, she just blew everybody’s heads off. And there were women [who captivated fans] all through history. My parents were moving to Houston, so my mother set up the tournament in Houston that September of 1970.
Before she got it going, she buttonholed Jack Kramer and asked him if there would be any problem with a sanction, and he said, ‘No, I am not that kind of guy.’ But as the eight other players, besides me, were getting on planes to go to Houston, Stan Malless and the USLTA called them and said, ‘You will be suspended.’
Flink: Clearly it took a lot of courage for the Original Nine to see this through.
Heldman: At some level, the women who ended up being the Original Nine were brave, but at another level, there was not much to lose. My mother offered hope and organization. She paid for their flights. She was a whirlwind. So everybody came to Houston. It was obvious the USLTA was going to undermine us. My favorite threat of theirs was that you can’t have two professional tournaments in the country at the same time, but that was not true. Their other threat was we could have a tournament, but it had to be amateur. Nobody wanted to do that. So my mother came up with the idea of everybody signing to become a contract pro. We went out and had that photo taken of all of us holding the $1 bills.
I wasn’t even at the tournament yet when everybody decided to go ahead; I was at home. I was injured and wasn’t going to be playing. But I realized the world had been turned upside down. I knew I had to join in. Billie Jean had gone through knee surgery, but she still played the singles. My bad elbow prevented me from playing a whole match, but Billie Jean offered to play one point against me. We pitty-patted the ball back and forth until she said, ‘Don’t you think that’s enough?’ I hit the ball in the net, we shook hands, and I had become a contract pro.
Flink: Did the others stand on the same philosophical plane as you, that it had to be done no matter what the consequences were?
Heldman: Yes. Everybody knew it was a risk, and everybody was somewhat scared, but we were doing this not just for ourselves but for the future. This was the way we would have to change the women’s tennis world. And the other thing that happened at the same meeting of the players with the $1 contracts was my mother announced that Virginia Slims would sponsor the Houston event. They were also sending a marketing team, and they brought in Fortune 500 marketing, as well. We went to bed with the devil, and they saved us. And this was due to the Holy Trinity, as I called them: Gladys Heldman, who put it all together with her incredible force of will and ability; Billie Jean King, who was such a charismatic champion; Virginia Slims and Joe Cullman.
Flink: You wrote in your excellent memoir, “Driven,” that there were men in tennis leadership posts everywhere, but in the “Battle of the Sexes” movie that came out in 2017, Jack Kramer was the scapegoat for the women’s game being held back. Yet Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and all of the top male players wanted no part of the women playing for prize money. What about all of the other men, besides Kramer, who were standing in your way?
Heldman: The only man not standing in our way was Joe Cullman. The movie made Kramer a villain, but they got him all wrong. The reality was that every place we turned, men were stopping us, including Stan Malless, although I believe Stan got his marching orders from Jack Kramer. Why did Jack Kramer have this sway? Part of it was he was really quite famous in the tennis world. Every wood tennis racquet has his name on it. He was handsome and a really good announcer. The fact that Jack was famous and went against us was part of the whole story about the beginning of the women’s pro tour. It was the old-boy network working against us.
Flink: Who else, besides Kramer and Stan Malless, played a significant role in trying to block the women?
Heldman: One person you would not have thought would be against us was Alastair Martin, the head of the USLTA at the time. When we were meeting at the Houston Racquet Club to see if Alastair was going to back up Malless and Kramer, my mother phoned Alastair more than once, and he would not respond. So Nancy Richey called him, and he told her he was backing up Malless. We were just trying to get this tournament in Houston going. There was no getting around the fact that all of them were against us, including the men players.
Arthur Ashe, some years later, said, ‘OK, I was really wrong on that one.’ That was a high-minded thing to do, but at the time, Ashe and the other top Americans came out against us on the grounds that they did not want money taken away from their wives. It was deeply misguided, but it was the time we lived in. The ‘Me Too’ movement was far away. We had a world dominated by men. We were women with muscles when the only people who were supposed to have muscles were men.
Heldman: Larry King was a smart guy, and I am sure he still is. But he really didn’t have any of the promotional experience of my mother. Here we were, having this spaghetti dinner following the end of the very first tournament, and he arrives and announces he wanted to run the tour. He made this pronouncement that he would talk to the players first, and then my mother would talk.
Earlier in the year, he had sent a proposal to eight women players, and I was one of them. He wanted to run some events with us, but he didn’t have a sponsor. They were prettied-up exhibitions. Larry was 27 and hadn’t run many tournaments. All of the women knew who my mother was and what she had done.
Flink: How did the players react to being forced to decide on Larry versus Gladys?
Heldman: Billie Jean, of course, wanted her husband to be able to do this. After Larry said he would talk first, I went out to the living room in our house because we were meeting in the bedroom. I told my mother what Larry had said, and she became completely frantic, incapable of functioning.
She had proved to be one of the most extraordinary promoters in the history of tennis—not just women’s tennis. In 1962, she and nine other friends took over the U.S. Nationals by chartering a jet to bring the players in from Europe who were not playing in our American tournaments. She made that tournament a huge success, and she had run several events that were successes.
But that night in Houston, she was emotionally distraught and said I had to speak for her. So I went back to the meeting and said some things I have never been proud of. I said that Larry had experienced some failures and my mother had only successes. Those weren’t the only words, but that was the gist of it. We voted with small pieces of paper ripped up from one larger piece of paper. You wrote down one name or the other—Larry or my mother. My mother won. It was one of the best things we ever did.
Flink: In those early years of, say, 1971 to 1973, how critical was Billie Jean with her high profile and star power in giving the tour credibility?
Heldman: She was pivotal. For one thing, she was already somewhat of a star, having won Wimbledon three times by then. But she became far bigger because she was the main story that the Virginia Slims people were putting out there. It was ‘Billie Jean Wins Again.’ She was charismatic, both on and off the court, and she knew how to speak to the press. She would talk about ‘Joe Six-Pack’ and how to get those people in the seats. Throughout this time, she was the star that could, in some ways, pull others along. Her stardom went through the roof after the Bobby Riggs match in September of 1973.
Flink: How important was that transcendent match for women’s tennis, with more than 30,000 people watching it live at the Astrodome, millions more seeing it on television all over the world and Billie Jean winning in straight sets?
Heldman: Billie Jean was famous even before the tour started and more famous from winning so many Virginia Slims tournaments and being the star, but the Bobby Riggs match really catapulted her to major stardom, which exists to this day. The Riggs match was so much a part of those times. We are talking about men versus women. They didn’t want us to have our tour and all of that. That was what a lot of the Riggs match was about.
He was making noise about how women should stay home and men will beat women all of the time. People were taking sides. Some would say, ‘I am for Riggs.’ Others would say, ‘I am for King.’ It said something about what was happening in this era, and for Billie Jean to come through in the crunch and beat him was huge. I had my own perspective and was always really in favor of Billie Jean winning, but I had beaten her two weeks before the Riggs match at the US Open.
Flink: Billie Jean was behind 4-1 in the third set against you at Forest Hills, and then she walked off the court. What are your recollections?
Heldman: I wasn’t a superstar, but when I beat her that day, I was absolutely swarmed by people who wanted a piece of me. I realized how hard it was to deal with that. Billie Jean was dealing with that every minute of every day. Many in the media wanted to ask me what I did to make her walk off the court, and that made me feel they had taken my victory away. That rankled something fierce. I was often in my earlier years in a really bad emotional state, but it was eye-opening for what Billie Jean must have been going through every day.
Having said that, I was up 4-1 in that third set, and she could have stood out there for two more games and given me the total victory. So there was some bad blood. That was very difficult for me.
Flink: In those early years on the tour, you played with one indoor court in each arena at all of the tournaments, and players would practice at other facilities. You have said you felt some loneliness in that atmosphere, yet simultaneously the players bonded in a heartwarming way. Talk about those contrasts—the isolation combined with joining forces for something larger than yourselves.
Heldman: Good point. In the early years, the tournaments were thrown together so fast, and my mother and the local people did a lot of things helter-skelter. We traveled around with a carpet-like surface, and each week on Sunday, the court we were playing on would be rolled up and sent to the tournament being played the next week. We would practice at nearby clubs. This was mainly in the northern U.S., where it was cold and everybody was isolated.
There were times at the tournaments we could not lob because there would be a sign hanging over the middle of the court. There were times we could hardly get any linespeople. It was by hook or by crook, but we were all in there for a reason. We had jobs and went to cocktail parties and gave at least one clinic a week. But we were all helping to build it, and we knew we were in it together. We were like soldiers in the trenches. Nobody currently playing the tour could think of doing the things that we were doing, but we were just working to make this happen.
RELATED: The Original Nine: The Beginning of Women’s Pro Tennis
Flink: You had a great career, which included wins over Evert, Court, Navratilova, King and countless others, but you did not make a ton of money. You made $40,000 in 1975, for example. Any regrets about coming along when you did?
Heldman: I would not trade in what I experienced. In terms of the money, I would not have believed how much it went up. I thought it was great in the first year of the tour, when we got to Las Vegas for a 16-woman tournament, and there was like $40,000 in prize money. Four months later, there was another ‘most-ever’ event. The prize money was growing in a way I had not contemplated.
But, no, I never wanted to have been from another era because I was highly unstable emotionally. I wanted to have fun and not have the pressure. I wanted to play well and hated losing, but I did not want to live in another era when money was paramount.
Flink: What has changed the most in women’s tennis since Houston in 1970?
Heldman: Money is the biggest change. Now people come from every continent thinking they could one day be a star in tennis. The equipment today is breathtakingly different. You watch the women and the men, as well, and they get pulled off to the corner of the backhand court and slap their wrist with a squash shot, and it comes back with speed and spin. That was not possible with the equipment we were playing with.
If you look back at our matches, a lot of them look like pitty-pat compared to now, where everybody is pouring their heart and souls into every shot. There are so many good players now, and it is wonderful to see so much competition. I feel for the players, with the amount of stress and strain they live under.
Flink: What would you want young players today to understand and appreciate about the Original Nine and your band of players, who changed tennis in so many sweeping ways?
Heldman: I don’t think it is an overstatement to say they are standing on our shoulders—that we were the people who started it, that nobody did it alone; we all did it together. In the beginning, there weren’t many of us, but we fought our hearts out to make this happen. Had there not been a rebellion in 1970, I don’t know what would have happened with women’s tennis, but I believe it would have taken a lot longer to build the game because there were these dynamic forces all converging.
One thing about the Original Nine that people don’t focus enough on is this: we were the ones who were there in Houston, but the moment after Houston, everybody else wanted to play. There were a lot of people who built the tour, but we started it. Everybody should know that.