ORIGINAL NINE SPOTLIGHT:
Steve Flink | July 15, 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 latest interview, he talks with Kristy Pigeon.
In many ways, it was fitting that Kristy Pigeon was a member of the Original Nine who assembled at Houston in 1970 for the start of a journey that would take women’s tennis to a level of recognition and popularity it had never touched before. Pigeon came out of California. She was left-handed, determined to set the agenda in her matches with an aggressive style of play featuring a formidable serve, and a competitor unafraid to take risks. She established herself over the last couple of years leading up to Houston as a player to be reckoned with.ADVERTISEMENT
Consider the accomplishments of Pigeon from 1968-70. In 1968, she was victorious at both the Wimbledon Juniors and the U.S. National 18 Championships. Moreover, she was then regarded in some circles as the preeminent 21-and-under player in the world. That same year she was competing favorably in women’s tournaments, garnering a No. 6 U.S. ranking.
The following season of 1969, Pigeon remained the sixth-ranked player in her country. In 1970, she stood at No. 8 among Americans. Twice, in 1968 and 1969, she advanced to the Round of 16 at Wimbledon. Pigeon was 20 when she signed on to become a contract professional with Gladys Heldman in Houston 50 years ago. She played on the tour until 1975 after dividing her time between tennis and college. A multi-faceted individual with a wide range of interests, the commendable Pigeon reflects on her life and brief tennis career in this exclusive and compelling interview.
Steve Flink: What are your chief recollections of joining the eight other players and becoming a member of the Original Nine in Houston for the inaugural Virginia Slims tournament in 1970?
Kristy Pigeon: 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. 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.
Flink: Expand a bit on how that all came about with other players weighing in and the significance of the research to see where women’s tennis stood at that time.
Pigeon: There were quite a few other players involved, and I think a lot of players felt the same way as the Original Nine, but there was no course of action in mind. Gladys was the force behind that course of action. She was always a progressive thinker, and she was one of the reasons why I became involved. I was personally impacted by the women’s tennis scene at that time. I was interested in going to college. On the men’s side of the game then, it was very easy for players like Stan Smith and Bob Lutz to go to college and play on a competitive team there, but to also play the international circuit. But for me, when I graduated high school in 1968, I was No. 1 in the world for under-21 players, and I had very few scholarships offered to me. It was really almost impossible for someone like me to do both—play the tour and play college tennis. The only other Original Nine player who had gone to college was Julie Heldman. She went earlier than I did. When the circuit was formed within Virginia Slims, women’s tennis became a lot more competitive and more of a full-time job. So I tried working out with the men’s team in college, but that didn’t work too well. It was very tough trying to do both.
Flink: At the time of Houston in 1970, you had come off some good years in both the juniors and women’s tennis. What was your vision for yourself and for the women’s tour when you started?
Pigeon: I was willing to trudge forward and take a risk. I was closer to Gladys Heldman than the other girls. She was a mentor for me until she passed away. When I was running a non-profit later on, she would give me fundraising advice. So it was really an easy decision for me in 1970 because of Gladys’ input, No. 1, and, No. 2, because I was going to school in California in the late ‘60s, when the women’s liberation movement was taking a strong hold. Betty Friedan came to my college and gave a talk. I was influenced by that movement, as well, but in retrospect I think what we did in women’s tennis was stronger and more significant, simply because we were doing it through a sport to earn recognition instead of doing something like burning your bra.
Flink: How did you feel about the future of the tour after Houston?
Pigeon: I was definitely eager to move forward, but I was in college, as well. I figured if for some reason we got suspended and I couldn’t play any tournaments for a while, I would focus on college. I had something to fall back on, whereas some of the other girls were more at risk. I had no idea how fast things would move. I had some communications with Joe Cullman of Philip Morris through Gladys to help him get behind the program. It was hard work for us players, and we did a lot of things players don’t have to do now, like going on the radio at 6:30 in the morning, giving clinics and signing autographs. Kerry Melville and I went to K-Mart to sign autographs in the sports section of the store. I really don’t think you would see Serena Williams doing that now.
Flink: It was evolving quickly in 1971 and 1972 with the Virginia Slims circuit and so many other players joining the Original Nine in competing. Talk about that.
Pigeon: Yes, that is true, but all of the players were not on board, as you know. There were holdouts, like Virginia Wade and Margaret Court, and Chrissie Evert was so young then and didn’t want to jump into something that could get her into trouble. Others were not supportive. So I don’t think it was a general consensus to move forward. We had Philip Morris with Virginia Slims, and we had elected Gladys as our leader as opposed to Larry King and his group, so it was all happening fast.
Flink: You were juggling college with pro tennis and later left tennis when you were young at 25. Did you wish you could have played longer?
Pigeon: Absolutely, but there was really not a good opportunity for me to keep playing tennis and go to college at the same time. I would go to college the first semester but not get in enough practice sessions to stay competitive, and then I would go back on the circuit in January and February, which was tough. I graduated from college in 1973 after going for five years. The last year I went full time, but most of the time I would go to college half a year and then try to play pro tennis the rest of the time. I lost my killer instinct, and my game started to suffer. You had to make tennis the 100 percent focus of your life and strive only to be No. 1.
Flink: Was losing that killer instinct a slow process?
Pigeon: It happened over the first four months of college. I probably could have gotten it back if I would have changed my focus back to tennis. But I will give you an example of what happened to me in that time period that was kind of cool. I played on the South African Sugar Circuit in 1969 into 1970. While I was there, I went to Johannesburg, and I had a meeting with the National Park’s board about doing a research project in one of their national parks. They approved it. They gave me a complimentary hut to live in, and I did a research project on lion-zebra relationships. I got credit for school for doing this, and it was one of the highlights of my life. I would not have been able to have that experience if it wasn’t for getting my way paid to go to South Africa to play tennis. That research project was such a blast I almost didn’t leave. But personally I was pulled in different directions around that time. I got a lot out of tennis. I was close to Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals. Billie Jean was No. 1, and she had all these Wimbledon titles. Her life just didn’t seem that great to me at the time. But we were building blocks with the start of the tour, and it is incredible to see the opportunities players have today with equal prize money.
Flink: How difficult was it for you to stop playing?
Pigeon: It was a tough decision. I think of the differences between now and yesteryear, and coaching springs to my mind. I didn’t have a coach traveling with me. And since I was left-handed, a lot of the girls didn’t even want to warm up with me because I had a different spin and they didn’t want to deal with that. It was pretty much a dog-eat-dog world. I remember at the Queen’s Club tournament before Wimbledon, I would warm up on the backboard. I also had a lot of interests. I liked to ski and do other things. In high school, I remember going jogging, and boys would tease me for doing that. It was not cool to be an athlete then. But when I went to college at UC-Berkeley, that all changed. I would play flag football with the boys, and they thought it was really cool. So many of these things pulled me away from tennis.
Flink: Many of the fans reading this piece lost track of you long ago after you retired. Bring them up to date.
Pigeon: After I retired, I moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, where I still live. I started my own tennis school that I operated for 11 years during the summer months. At one point, the resort was rated in the Top 100 in tennis. In the winter, I was a ski instructor. When I retired, I also liked to hunt. In 1991, I started a therapeutic horse riding program with non-profit status that was a pretty big deal and is still going strong today. I retired from the executive directorship of that five or six years ago. The therapeutic riding program has grown to serve individuals from all over the country, including disabled veterans, those with Parkinson's, people with Down syndrome, cognitive dysfunctions, you name it. I immersed myself in that for 20 years before retiring. I also sold my equestrian facility that I had built. Now my husband and I own a ranch, and I have been immersed in wildlife. I have gone back to my roots with that because my major in college was biology. I have been building wetlands, restoring wildlife habitats and working on conservation issues. I have been an advocate for wildlife.
Flink: Did you ever think the Original Nine would be recognized as you are today on such a lofty scale?
Pigeon: I am surprised, but what surprises me more is how little other women’s sports have progressed compared to tennis. There is still not equal prize money in soccer and golf and so forth. That is amazing. After 50 years, you would think that those sports for women would have made strides, too, but they haven’t.
Flink: Looking at the sport today, examining the lofty prize money level, the athleticism and the depth in women’s tennis, did you envision tennis rising to this level of popularity?
Pigeon: It is pretty amazing. No, I didn’t imagine that tennis would be where it is today. It has become more exciting to watch with the athleticism and the way people play, which is different. For example, men staying back at the baseline, players hitting harder and more strategy involved. For a long time, I did not even watch tennis. Probably for 25 years after retiring I did not watch it. The men’s and women’s games are so exciting now, and in certain ways the women are more the strategists. You watch a great match now, and after four hours of play, it can come down to one point. That is exciting stuff.
Flink: Was the emergence of the Williams sisters a turning point for you in reviving your interest in watching the game again?
Pigeon: I think so. I like Venus’ attitude on the court. I love watching Rafa Nadal and especially love watching him beat Nick Kyrgios. Everyone loves watching the good guys and the bad guys, and both men’s and women’s tennis has that. I liked watching Sharapova, and I didn’t mind it when Serena lost. When she lost to Halep at Wimbledon in the final last year, I made a friendly bet on Halep with a friend and won some money.
Flink: Put into context how it feels for you to have been a member of the Original Nine, how that experience fits into your life, and where tennis is today compared to 50 years ago when you started in Houston?
Pigeon: I would wrap it all up by saying I love the way the Women’s Tennis Association has been a force in bringing out the idea that women are strong and that strong is beautiful. That to me is very powerful. I would like to see the players of today take a greater interest in helping women from other countries who are still oppressed. The players now are making a lot of money. They deserve it, but they can do something. I would love to see the women players get after it.