The Original Nine:
The Beginning of Women’s Pro Tennis
Joel Drucker | March 9, 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
throughout the summer. Check back on Wednesday for his first
conversation with Julie Heldman.
Fifty years ago, tennis was booming. The coming of Open tennis in 1968 had opened the floodgates, with such stars as Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe emerging as cross-cultural icons, adorning magazine covers, print advertisements and TV commercials. Between 1970 and 1974, the number of Americans playing the sport would triple. Media coverage would soar, including increased airtime for the US Open on CBS. Other networks got in on the action, too, the likes of NBC, ABC and PBS drastically upping their engagement with tennis.ADVERTISEMENT
when it came to prize money, the playing field was hardly level. In
1968, men earned two to three times more than women. Sadly, it didn’t
get much better from there. Indeed, as the ‘70s got underway, the pay
gap between men and women in tennis began to widen considerably. As King
and Cynthia Starr wrote in their book, “We Have Come a Long Way,” in
1988, “The women were being squeezed financially because we had no
control in a male-dominated sport. Men owned, ran and promoted the
tournaments, and because many of them were former players themselves,
their sympathies lay with the male players, who argued vociferously that
most of the money should be theirs.”
The tipping point came in the summer of 1970, when the Pacific Southwest Open, a tournament held in Los Angeles just after the US Open, announced its purse. The men’s champion would receive $12,500. As for the women: $1,500 for the winner, total prize money of $7,500—and not a penny paid until the quarterfinals.
Outraged by the disparity, such players as King, Rosemary Casals and Nancy Richey quickly sought to address the matter with the LA event’s promoter, Jack Kramer. “I bailed out of that one, though,” wrote King in her 1974 autobiography. “Kramer had never been a friend of women’s tennis. I knew that a meeting between us would be a disaster because he’d think I was just agitating for myself again.”
Enter Gladys Heldman. A quick-thinking New Yorker who’d earned degrees from Stanford and Berkeley, Heldman had willed herself into a place of prominence in the tennis world. In 1953, she founded World Tennis, a magazine that rapidly became the sport’s bible—news, portraits, tournament results and, fueled by Heldman’s passion and skill, advocacy for various tennis-related causes. She organized benefits to aid injured players. In 1962, Heldman arranged for a charter jet to fly dozens of European players to compete in the U.S. Seven years later, she staged three women’s-only events in Philadelphia, New York and Dallas. Kramer referred to her as “the smartest kid I ever ran into anywhere.”
Heldman built a number of business relationships with significant executives, the most notable being Joe Cullman, CEO of the prominent cigarette manufacturer, Philip Morris.
In 1968, Philip Morris launched Virginia Slims, a product aimed specifically at women, complete with a lively advertising jingle that would echo for decades: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
Over the next two years, Virginia Slims ads were omnipresent, most notably on television. But on April 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed legislation banning cigarette ads from television and radio, effective the next calendar year. As 1971 neared, the fledgling Virginia Slims brand wondered how it could effectively reach young women.
The political intrigue that followed would be worthy of dissertations typically devoted to the causes of the French Revolution or the decline of the Roman Empire. Would the USLTA (as the USTA was known then) approve a competing tournament? Or would the women who entered the Houston event be severely punished, including banishment from such prestigious events as the US Open and Wimbledon? Was Houston merely a one-off, or the start of a circuit? At one point, an official proposed the Houston tournament be staged as an amateur event—that is, with money being paid under the table, as had been the case prior to the start of Open tennis in 1968. “We knew we were gambling,” wrote King and Starr. “Several of the men players said we were fools and would never succeed. ... We faced humiliation if we failed.”
But the women were indeed generating traction, the start of what Heldman would dub “Women’s Lob.” Aiding the cause was an informal market research study conducted by Ceci Martinez, a young pro from San Francisco. On Sept. 7, 1970, Martinez and her doubles partner, Esme Emanuel, distributed a questionnaire to US Open attendees. Of the 278 responses they received, more than 50 percent of the men and two-thirds of the women said they would pay to watch a women’s-only tournament. The next day, The New York Times tennis writer Neil Amdur wrote a story about the survey results.
Heldman and Cullman made an easy intuitive leap: What better promotional vehicle for Virginia Slims than a group of women athletes? And with the ban on broadcast media nearing, why not consider putting many of those unused funds into tennis?
If indeed many of the women were ambivalent about aligning themselves with a cigarette manufacturer, they also felt so thoroughly rejected by all others in tennis that it was hard to turn down sponsorship from a first-rate marketer with a team of sophisticated public relations professionals providing everything from banners to photographers to press releases. Courtesy of a $2,500 contribution, the tournament was renamed the Virginia Slims Invitational. In large part, this was the beginning of what would later be dubbed “event marketing.”
Then there came a masterstroke that would trigger one of the most enduring images in the history of sports. In these early years of the Open era, such ambitious promoters as George MacCall and Lamar Hunt had avoided the tentacles of amateur associations by signing players to professional contracts. “Bingo,” thought Heldman. On Sept. 23, 1970, she signed each of the nine players entered in Houston to professional contracts. The signing fee: $1.
And thus came “The Original Nine”—King, Casals, Richey, along with fellow Americans Julie Heldman, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Kristy Pigeon and Peaches Bartkowicz and a pair of Australians, Judy Dalton and Kerry Melville.
Casals won in Houston, beating Dalton in a three-set final. First prize was $1,500. But the much bigger victory was the tournament’s success. King would later say that there was more publicity generated around the Houston event than the entire previous year. Soon after came the announcement that Virginia Slims would sponsor eight tournaments and, in 1971, offer $309,100 in total prize money.
From there, women’s professional tennis continued to grow by leaps and bounds. Tennis players have emerged as the world’s most prominent female athletes, many known to the world on a first-name basis, from Billie Jean, Chrissie and Martina to Serena, Venus and Maria among the stars who have built off those humble origins in 1970 to form a multi-million dollar circuit.