Original Nine Spotlight:
Steve Flink | May 13, 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 Valerie Ziegenfuss.
When the Original Nine was created in September 1970, the players threw their hearts and souls into a selfless effort to propel women’s tennis toward a prominence it had never found before. The players were unified and willing to put themselves out there in pursuit of something larger than themselves. Without exception, they were unwavering, powerfully driven and transcendent.
Valerie Ziegenfuss came out of California with large dreams, clear goals and high aspirations. She was a multi-faceted competitor who spent four years between 1969 and 1974 among the U.S. ADVERTISEMENT Top 10. An outstanding doubles player, she took the U.S. Hard Courts with Stephanie Grant in 1967, captured the U.S. Clay Courts with Nancy Richey in 1968, and won the U.S. Indoors with Mary Ann Eisel in 1969. In singles across the years, she had wins over the likes of Billie Jean King, Kerry Melville Reid, Virginia Wade and Julie Heldman. She represented the U.S. in Wightman Cup and Fed Cup. In 1972, she was victorious in all four of her Fed Cup singles contests as the U.S. reached the semifinals.
Ziegenfuss was 21 when she joined the Original Nine. Not only had she enjoyed impressive success in the women’s game—garnering the No. 14 U.S. ranking when she was only 17 in 1966—but she also won eight national titles in the juniors.
In an interview commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Original Nine, Ziegenfuss speaks freely and expressively about her playing days and the life she has led since. Her earnestness, intelligence and decency are threads running unmistakably through this entire session.
Steve Flink: When the Original Nine was formed in 1970, it happened really quickly. What was it like for you personally, and who in the end was most persuasive in getting you to sign the $1 contract with Gladys Heldman?
Valerie Ziegenfuss: Personally, I talked to my dad, and he said, "You love tennis. Go for it! You can always go back to college." We heard about suspensions, and that was pretty scary. I looked at Gladys, and my faith in her ability as a promoter was stronger than the fear of being suspended. My belief in our tennis and our product took me to the other side. And then we had Billie Jean King as a great leader. So we had a great product, a great promoter and a wonderful, great leader, so that overtook the fear of not having any place to play.
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Flink: Coming out of Houston and the first event there in 1970, you knew more tournaments were ahead, and then a circuit took shape in 1971. Were you confident the public would respond to this new development of a Virginia Slims circuit strictly for women?
Ziegenfuss: I don’t think I was confident, but we didn’t have anything in place. The USTA didn’t offer us a place to play in the fall of 1970, so I just felt this was an opportunity. Was I really optimistic about what was ahead? No, but I felt we were at a dead end with the USTA, so why not try?
Flink: Did you feel the shape of the future was right in front of you and that long term you were on your way?
Ziegenfuss: I mean, we played a tournament in Richmond in the fall of 1970 after Houston, and then we played 14 out of 16 weeks in ‘71, starting in the winter. So it was right in front of us. In fact, it was like, "Woah, I need to take some time off." We just got right into it. It was amazing. The next question in ‘71 was, "Are they going to suspend us, and will we not get to play the Grand Slams?" But it all fell into place. Was I a visionary who could look years down the road and see it all? Not really.
Flink: So you took it one day at a time, one tournament at a time?
Ziegenfuss: Right. Even a stroke at a time! There was a lot of time spent promoting the tour. We were just so busy trying to make this happen. Every week there was something new to do. Billie shouldered most of the responsibility with major interviews. We had to do some interviews, too, but we weren’t winning the tournaments like she was. Getting to the quarters in a 32-draw tournament—that was good. Getting prize money was great. But we were still fighting. We were in the trenches trying to get more prize money. We knew we had to make a living and felt we had to take this to the next level. Staying in the moment was huge for us.
Flink: Did you see the “Battle of the Sexes” movie when it came out a few years ago, and did it accurately depict that period in your lives? You lived it. Did it realistically portray your era?
Ziegenfuss: We went to the premier of the movie, and there were parts where I was scratching my head thinking, "I don't think so. That was not right." But the second time I saw it, I really enjoyed it just as a movie. The first time I watched it I thought they were taking too many liberties and I was dissecting it, but the second time I took a deep breath and thought it was a good movie. Just taking myself out of it, I enjoyed it.
Flink: What liberties did they take?
Ziegenfuss: The timeframes of it all. It was great that they went so far back with Billie to include the time leading up to it, but then it just got confusing when they were interjecting things from, say, something we did in ‘71, and then trying to piece it all together. I remember that was annoying when I first saw it. But for a movie, they really did a good job depicting it because there were so many characters, and you had Billie Jean and Larry King fighting Jack Kramer, even up to who is going to commentate in Houston for the big match with Bobby Riggs and Billie in ‘73. I was not part of the “in crowd,” so some of this was news to me. Right now I am reading Julie Heldman’s book, “Driven,’’ and I am thinking, "Darn, I wish I had known some of this stuff back then," like the background of Gladys. Julie’s book is so interesting and has so many insights into her mom. At 70 years old, I am looking backwards now and wishing I would have known more then. But reading Julie’s book has been fun and informative.
Flink: You went to San Diego State before Houston. Did you ever go back and get your degree or think about it, at least?
Ziegenfuss: I went two fall semesters because, in the spring of 1968, I played the Caribbean circuit. In ’69, I went back to college in the fall, and then I left early and went to South Africa and played the Sugar Circuit there. I went back to the Caribbean circuit in 1970 in the spring. So I spent two semesters in college but never went back. I did not regret it. I loved tennis and made it my world. I had no second thoughts.
Flink: You had a quick rise before that in 1966, breaking into the U.S. Top 20 and broke into the U.S. Top 10 in 1969, so by the time of Houston in 1970 with the Original Nine, you had accomplished quite a bit. Did you fulfill your goals and make the kind of living you hoped you would?
Ziegenfuss: No. If you are a tennis pro, you want to succeed in big numbers. I was better at doubles, and I wanted to get better in singles. There wasn’t enough money then for me to have my coach—who was my father—travel with me. I always played better when he was there, but he did not come that much—only when it was very close to home. And so I didn’t reach any of my goals in singles.
Flink: How much of a difference would it have made if your dad had been able to be out there with you more often?
Ziegenfuss: I think it would have made a big difference. He was my steady, solid rock. Everybody needs to travel with a coach that believes in them. I kind of got beat up. I remember in 1971, I was playing and losing early a lot, and your confidence gets lower and lower when you don’t win. I was losing to Billie and Rosie. I had pretty good results against some top players, but not Margaret Court. I played her once in Philadelphia, and I was playing well, but I got only one game in two sets.
Flink: But you did beat Top-10 players. You had that ability.
Ziegenfuss: Yes, but I couldn’t break through. They were five, six years older than me and had more confidence and experience, so at 21, I was in there and obviously had a good enough record to be invited to be part of the Original Nine in Houston. That was good. As my career took off, I was very happy to represent my country, and in 1972, I went to South Africa and did not lose a singles match in Fed Cup. We lost the final point in doubles in the semifinals against South Africa when I played with Sharon Walsh. So there were moments like that in singles when it was good, but it was mostly the doubles that carried me through.
Flink: Did that give you greater financial security to have some success in doubles?
Ziegenfuss: It did not help much financially. Here I am today, and I am still working. No, there wasn’t enough money in doubles. Doubles players weren't rewarded much that way. I must say that I think I would have done OK in this day and age with all of the training that goes on. I enjoyed training and liked practicing. I probably would have had a coach today who would have kept me focused, and I would keep my mental game strong when the pressure is on. I could have done well today, especially in doubles.
Flink: You played through the '78 season and then retired in 1979 when you were in your late 20s. Could you have played a few more years?
Ziegenfuss: No, because I didn’t want it anymore after 11 years of traveling. If you are in the tennis world, you are always traveling. I really got sick of traveling. So I got married in 1979 and had two kids, Allison Bradshaw and Michael Bradshaw. Allison played on the WTA Tour for three years, and she is here now in San Diego, where I live, and so is Michael. We are still having family dinners, which is as much as we can do with the social distancing. I had not played tennis in years until recently, when Allison said, "Mom, let’s go hit." I hadn’t played because of my knees, which are bad. Not doing anything for three years, I went out with Allison, and my arm didn’t hurt, and I thought, "Oh, gosh, what a gift." I am going to try to play a little more often with Allison.
Flink: How involved were you with Allison’s career?
Ziegenfuss: For five years, I was a National Coach for the USTA, from 1998-2002. That was fun. Allison was on a college scholarship at Arizona, and that was my territory with Player Development. I would go over to Phoenix and groom some of our better young players and catch a college match of Allison’s while I was there. So I was really in the thick of it when she was playing. She made me a proud mama. Allison has a good game. She loves tennis and is now a teaching pro at Rancho Santa Fe. She hits with CoCo Vandeweghe. She is 39.
Flink: How proud are you of the role you played in being one of the pioneers of the women’s professional game, with the 50th anniversary of Houston coming up soon?
Ziegenfuss: I am very proud. I am scratching my head and saying, "Oh my God, look what happened. We started that!" It comes up every five years with anniversaries. Somebody sent a picture of us holding the $1 bills in Houston with Gladys Heldman to my daughter. I laugh about it with both of my kids. It is very difficult to get to this stage of life, where so much of the best is behind me. When you are 70, it is interesting to be older. A lot of people don’t have this opportunity to relive something important in their lives that happened 50 years ago. The nine of us are still alive, and it has given me the opportunity to meet up with everybody. We just had to cancel plans to go to Wimbledon this year, which would have been exciting, but I am very privileged to have been a part of it all.
Flink: After you left Player Development for the USTA, what did you do?
Ziegenfuss: I started a women’s gym called Busy Bodies, which is like Curves. It is circuit training for 30 minutes. I started doing that at home, so I wanted to start one myself. I didn’t want to stay in the tennis world because it meant traveling after coming off five years traveling with the USTA job. So I started the women’s gym, and that lasted for two years. Then I thought, "What am I going to do now?" The training and the gym and putting it together was really fun. After that, I went into real estate around 2005. I need it for the money. I never made big money in tennis, and I have not made big money in real estate, but I am a survivor. My days are good. I live well.
Flink: You have witnessed the women’s game for more than 40 years since you retired. How do you feel about the way it has all evolved?
Ziegenfuss: I am so proud. I never could have envisioned it. My daughter grew up with Venus and Serena Williams. She is the same age as Venus. We watched them dominate for so long. It is refreshing that Kim Clijsters is coming back. The game has progressed to a skill level that is amazing. When I started off in the ‘60s, we had one magazine: World Tennis. We didn’t have it [tennis] on television. There wasn’t a Tennis Channel. We couldn’t foresee that we would be talking on cell phones, or that people would be broadcasting and working from home at a time like this with the coronavirus. We didn’t have computers in my day. If we did well at Wimbledon, we sent a telegram home. I wrote a letter every three weeks. So the progress of society is just amazing. I turn on the Tennis Channel all the time. The game has come so far, and the old slogan, "You’ve come a long way, baby," really applies. Watching Federer and the Williams sisters for 20 years is just pure enjoyment. It is an honor to look back and see how far life has come. I wasn’t No. 1, but I sure got a lot out of the game.