Original Nine Spotlight:
Steve Flink | June 16, 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 Peaches Bartkowicz.
Surely the most dominant female player in the history of American junior tennis, Jane “Peaches” Bartkowicz operated with supreme efficiency from the backcourt, displaying steely resolve, rarely giving away anything in the rallies. Bartkowicz was meticulous in her craftsmanship, and she was ahead of her time with the two-handed backhand.
She captured no fewer than 17 national junior titles in all, taking her first national junior singles crown in the 11-and-under category in 1960, capturing her last one seven years later at the highly coveted National 18 Championships. ADVERTISEMENT Through the juniors and beyond, she was guided by Jean Hoxie, who stringently ran a tennis camp with her husband in Peaches’ hometown of Hamtramck, Mich. The relationship Bartkowicz had with Hoxie was complicated to say the least, leaving Peaches with deep emotional scars she has carried across her lifetime to this day.
In women’s tournaments as a young player, Bartkowicz was very reliable. She spent six consecutive years—from 1966-71—stationed among the Top 10 Americans, finishing three of those seasons entrenched in the Top 5. She also was ranked in the world’s Top 10. Moreover, Bartkowicz was a stalwart competitor when representing her country, never losing a Fed Cup or Wightman Cup match in singles or doubles.
Bartkowicz was one of seven Americans who became part of the “Original Nine” and signed $1 pro contracts with promoter Gladys Heldman at Houston in 1970. She was 21, but played only briefly on the Virginia Slims circuit. But her contribution to the cause was immeasurable. In this interview, she speaks freely and forthrightly about her time in tennis, her life since leaving the game, the health ailments she has confronted, and her joy in having made history 50 years ago with the other landmark players. Through it all, Bartkowicz genuinely tells the story of her arduous life with unmistakable candor and forthrightness, emerging from this interview as an empathetic individual who has handled a multitude of daunting challenges with grace and dignity.
Steve Flink: Let’s start in 1970. Can you reflect on the first tournament in Houston and what led to it?
Peaches Bartkowicz: I remember there was the excitement of all of us getting together and talking amongst the players with Gladys Heldman and other people. And then we made the decision. Once we went through with that, it was not easy but it was calming. We knew what we had to do.
Flink: How nervous were you personally?
Bartkowicz: For me it was an easy decision because I just saw how things were going at the time. The women back then were not getting even one tenth—or something like that—of the prize money the men were getting. I came from a family that didn't have money. Nobody supplied any expense money for me, so it was very tough for me to get to any of the tournaments. I would do side jobs.
Flink: What kind of jobs?
Bartkowicz: I worked in stores. I would do any job I could get when I was in high school. I worked in a store downtown near where I lived in Michigan for 20 hours a week. It was anything I could get a hold of. There was no money coming to me towards anything. It depended on what you could get to appear at these tournaments. For me it was very rough. To continue, I knew I would need to be making something. I had no ideas about making loads and loads of money. I loved tennis and worked hard at it, but I needed to get something out of it, too.
Flink: Growing up, your younger sister, Plums, was also a fine junior player. She was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. Girls’ 12-and-under division for the 1966 season, with Chrissie Evert right behind her at No. 2. Talk about her.
Bartkowicz: My sister Christine “Plums” passed away in June of 2010. As for her tennis, I believe she felt some pressure following my junior career, and she lost interest in competition after high school. She continued playing but not training or competing.
Flink: How did you and Plums get your nicknames?
Bartkowicz: Everyone had a nickname on the public courts I played at. Mr. Sunday, a helper at the Veteran Park Courts in my hometown of Hamtramck, started calling me Peaches at the age of 7. Mrs. Hoxie claimed she gave me the name because I had a peach of a shot, but that is not true. She did give my sister her nickname of Plums. When I entered and won my first local junior tournament, the newspaper used my nickname, and most people didn’t even know my real name. Many thought Peaches was my given name. I was known as Peaches at tournaments, in school and by my friends.
Flink: So you signed your $1 contract with Gladys in Houston and joined the eight other players. What was your outlook?
Bartkowicz: It was an exciting time for all of us. It was also a tough period because we were at a dead end. The men didn’t want us. They were against us. The administrators at the time were all men from the USLTA, and they were all against us, too. It was time to make a stand. We are proud we did it, all nine of us. These are my sisters. They are family.
Flink: Elaborate on that.
Bartkowicz: I mean that the whole tennis family is my family. They have come to my aid, like when I had a bone marrow transplant four-and-a-half years ago. I also have Graft-versus-host disease in my right eye, so I just had a major surgery a few weeks ago. I always have trouble with the right eye, and I just get tired. But the most support I have gotten is from the Original Nine. Money is money, but this is about friendship and caring. Money can’t buy that. To this day they contact me. I hadn’t been in contact with a lot of them for many, many years, but, boy, when they heard about my dilemma, they were calling and giving me emotional support. I have never felt so good, even though I was in a bad situation. That is why I say these are my sisters. At the last reunion we had scheduled, I couldn’t go because of my transplant. I was looking forward to seeing the other players this year, but now with the virus, we won’t be able to do that. But we do keep in contact, and hopefully we will see each other soon. We are not getting any younger, but we are all still here, and that is great.
Flink: Did you feel in 1970 that you had a good, long career ahead of you and believe you would make a good living?
Bartkowicz: I hoped that I would have a good career and it would last. I just figured we had taken a stance. If people don’t take a chance in life, we would be nowhere. We took it and went somewhere. I just wanted to make a living out of it. This was my job. Playing tennis was my whole career. When we got started, there was a lot of promotional work we had to do on the Virginia Slims Tour, and that was what mostly got to me. To this day, I find it hard to give interviews or make speeches. We would go into a town for a tournament and go into grocery stores to promote the tour and even give out tickets. We would go to local radio stations and give clinics, and just do anything that would bring attention to our tour. That was our job.
Flink: So the off-court stuff made you uncomfortable?
Bartkowicz: Yes. There were cocktail parties that were mandatory, lots of appearances. The way I grew up, I didn’t have a real coach, but Jean Hoxie was like my manager. When I would go on television to give an interview, she would say, “You don’t speak. I speak for you.” I grew up that way. I was an introvert, and it was very difficult for me. So I went back to school, got married, and that was it. I did go back to World TeamTennis and played a few tournaments in 1974, but that was it.
Flink: Did you feel you would not only succeed on the tour but make a really good living, as well?
Bartkowicz: That was initially my thought, but then a year or two went by, and I just decided this was not for me. I felt I would rather get married, have a family and do other things.
Flink: You were amazing in the juniors, especially when you won both the National 16s and National 18s three years in a row.
Bartkowicz: Starting from the 11-and-under—in those days, I played the 11 and then the 13-and-unders—I always won. I never lost. Truthfully, I think that was sort of a hindrance. It did work against me a little bit. It was not that I was cocky, but I always had the pressure of, “Is she going to win?” And if I won, it was no big deal. I was playing some women’s tournaments, too, when I was younger. I was under so much pressure from Jean Hoxie. Oh my gosh, she was like a Hitler. She was the one that put that intense pressure on me. It sure was not from my parents, who never even saw me play. They didn’t know anything about tennis. It was Hoxie. And it was always inside me. I kept it all in. I used to get migraines, get sick, a lot of things people don’t know about. Once I got out of tennis, I opened up and let things out. I even had amnesia after I got married in 1972 because I kept so much inside of myself. It just built up to the point where you felt like exploding.
Flink: And yet, despite the pressure, you had all that success, not only in the juniors but the six years in a row in the Top 10 among the women in the U.S. Was the highlight playing on the victorious Fed Cup team in 1969, when you and Nancy Richey won the decisive doubles over Margaret Court and Judy Dalton in Athens?
Bartkowicz: I loved Fed Cup and Wightman Cup, and if you notice, I have never lost a match in either one because I love representing the United States. Don’t ask me why, but I just played better.
Flink: You were much better known for your singles and never missing a shot from the baseline. Was that a standout moment for you to win the Fed Cup for the U.S. with a stunning doubles victory?
Flink: It was definitely a standout because at that time Court and Dalton had maybe not lost a match for about a year. People were saying we didn’t have a chance. We just couldn’t believe it. Yet I had played with Nancy Richey in other tournaments, and we did very well. I played with Julie Heldman, and we beat Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals at Wimbledon in 1969. I will never forget Arthur Ashe the next year after Fed Cup in 1970, when they put me only in the singles and I did not play doubles. He said, “They say you are not a doubles player, but look at your record.” I had some great partners. Nancy was super fantastic. I really enjoyed playing with her and with Julie, as well.
Flink: You handled the pressure so well in the juniors, and you were untouchable then, and you went on to have an unbeaten record in Fed Cup and Wightman Cup. Why?
Bartkowicz: It was my country, and somehow I was more relaxed. That made a difference. In the juniors in my last year, Jean Hoxie didn’t show up until the night before I played the final of the National 18s. I asked her how she knew I would get to the finals, and she said, “I knew you would.” She brought my sister Plums with her. After I won the tournament, I hugged Plums. Jean pushed her away and said, “Get over here,” to me. Mrs. Hoxie was no coach at all. I was playing Rosie Casals one year at Forest Hills, and she told me to look out for Rosie coming to the net. A blind person could have told me that. God forbid, what I would have done if I had worked with a real coach.
Flink: In 1970, you played 22 tournaments and 64 matches, but in ’71, you played only 13 tournaments and 21 matches. Were you making up your mind about leaving the game?
Bartkowicz: I just decided to go back to school, to Wayne State here in Detroit, and started enjoying that. I probably enjoyed life for the first time a little too much, and I wasn’t 100 percent into tennis anymore by a certain point in 1971. I am the type of person where eventually if I am not 100 percent into something, it is time to look elsewhere.
Flink: So what was the impetus for returning in 1974 for World TeamTennis and a few tournaments?
Bartkowicz: I had heard about WTT and never thought a team would pick me up, but Nancy and Cliff Richey were playing, and they wanted me there with them on their team.
Flink: In Cleveland?
Bartkowicz: Yes. And they told the owner [Joe Zingale], “We don’t care if Peaches hasn’t picked up a racquet in two years, go get her.” So I went to Vegas when I was pregnant the year before and met with them [the brass of the Cleveland Nets], and they signed me up. I was thinking I would have a regular delivery with the baby, but I had a hard time. I had severe toxemia, and it took me a long time to get back on the court. Dumbly, six weeks after my caesarean, I was on the court practicing, but it was rough for me. They had been injecting me because I had blood poisoning. Even when I was 18, I was told I had an enlarged spleen, so I think I had a blood thing for a long, long time.
Flink: What about the tournaments in 1974? How did that go?
Bartkowicz: I did play a couple. In the first one in Washington, I not only qualified but won a couple of matches in the main draw. After that, I wasn’t doing so well, and it was time to stop. With the TeamTennis, I don’t think I played a full season. My baby was small, and I just had a different perspective.
Flink: At Wimbledon in 1970—only about three months before the Original Nine was established in Houston—you beat Evonne Goolagong, 6-4, 6-0. The next year she won both the French Open and Wimbledon. What were your impressions of Evonne?
Bartkowicz: I was shocked that I beat her because I knew how good she was going to be. I don’t remember the match. All I know is I beat her, and that was a very good win for me. It did not surprise me that she had a great career. She was a great player and such a nice person.
Flink: Looking back at the Original Nine, most of the players had long careers and played on until at least deep into the ‘70s. Did you regret you did not play longer?
Bartkowicz: Obviously, you have regrets. There have been times in my life that I have said I wish I would have gone on for longer. I did love tennis. But, all in all, I am still appreciative of everything I did get out of tennis. Maybe it was not monetary for me, but it was friendship. That is the most important thing. These players from the Original Nine, as I have said, are family. I saw some of them at a reunion at Indian Wells last year. They invited me to go there and speak on behalf of the WTA Financial Assistance Program that helped me when I had my bone marrow transplant. Otherwise, I would not have been able to have that done. The medical things were taken care of. I saw five of the players in the Original Nine. Before that, we got together for the movie “Battle of the Sexes,” and eight of us were there. It is always so nice to see them.
Flink: How much do you value being part of the Original Nine from a historical perspective. The friendships are enduring and important, but what about the history you all made?
Bartkowicz: We had a dream and a vision. We wanted to make women’s tennis be on the same level as men’s tennis. We made that happen. Who in their wildest dreams would have thought when we signed our $1 contracts that it would turn into millions of dollars for the players today? In fact, the women are not only doing very well, but better than the men in some ways. I am proud to have been part of that journey. I am glad I am still alive to see this dream come true.
Flink: You have fought so many battles over the years and dealt with a range of health ailments, but you have a lot of spunk. Has your fighting spirit defined who you are?
Bartkowicz: Tennis creates a competitive spirit in you to do the best you can. I believe my health issues and [the struggle] with life itself has helped me. People say, “How come you don’t get negative?” I say to them: “Because I am here. I am blessed.” It has made me a strong person, even though there have been tough times. Who doesn’t have health issues? Tennis just gears you to be a strong person and to intelligently deal with life and every issue that comes along. I have my little house here in Michigan that I bought after I retired from tennis, and my son [who was born in 1973] lives about half an hour from me. My granddaughter is nine, and she is the love of my life. I am very grateful.