Gladys Heldman, a peerless visionary

Steve Flink | March 01, 2021

The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., is the ultimate destination for the greatest of this sport. To be enshrined here is the definitive statement of your importance and impact on the game. Every name here represents an important pillar in tennis’ strong structure; each inductee has forged a lasting legacy in the game. They are champions, all.


So many of these names are household names; iconic figures of global renown. But there are others—no less significant in the storied history of this great sport—who are unheralded heroes, whose important achievements too often fall just this side of the spotlight. As we celebrate Women’s History Month throughout March, we take a closer look at five of those women who, although they may be lesser known, are most certainly no less important in crafting the remarkable herstory of this game. 


Here, we look at pioneer Gladys Heldman, whose vision, intelligence, and determination helped to make women’s tennis the global success that it is today.


Many eminent authorities have said that Gladys M. Heldman stands alone among the prominent leaders in the history of women’s tennis.

Photo courtesy of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Across her extraordinary lifetime, Heldman put her immense heart and soul behind a multitude of causes. She was a dynamo who spoke with high intelligence as well as a voice of reason, a mover and shaker unlike any other in the sphere of the sport, and a multi-dimensional woman of rare class and character. Heldman was indefatigable in pursuit of her goals, realizing nearly all of them with singular purpose and tenacity, displaying an unassailable clarity of mind to win with uncanny regularity on the battlefield of ideas. Above all else, she was unshakable.


Heldman did not embrace tennis until adulthood and marriage to her husband Julius, a former U.S. national junior champion. Not until after giving birth to two daughters did Heldman take up— and then throw herself full force— into tennis. Her daughter, Julie, eventually established herself as the No. 2 player in the U.S., and found a place among the world’s Top 10 in the 1960’s and 70’s. 


Gladys established herself as the top female player in Texas, and with supreme dedication, she competed at Wimbledon in 1954 and the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills several times in the early 1950’s. In 1951, she lost in the first round at Forest Hills to Althea Gibson and the following year, Heldman bowed out in the opening round again—this time against Maureen Connolly. Talk about tough draws!


In 1953, Heldman founded World Tennis Magazine with the motto “written by and for the players.” None other than Bill Tilden wrote in the inaugural issue, “I consider it a privilege to have been asked to write a series of articles for World Tennis. A tennis magazine written by and for the players is a swell idea.”


Gladys was omnipotent, putting the monthly magazine together almost all by herself, working endless hours, slaving over her publication with a fervor no one else could match. For decades it was known worldwide as the bible of tennis. Through it all, Gladys was like an unofficial Commissioner of the game, using her platform to constructively criticize those who were not living up to her ideals, praising others who were exemplary, making everyone who was anyone care about what she wrote and how she felt.  


As the estimable British writer David Gray put it, “Gladys was editor, publisher, circulation manager, space sales person, inspiration, hell-raiser and driving force. Gladys set off editorials like exploding fireworks, demanding freedom, open tennis, democracy and common sense. We journalists were Gladys’s young lions.”


Her crackling editorials were indeed well-founded, elegantly presented and self-deprecating. When the magazine was moving into its tenth year, she wrote, “You can come to our office at any time and find plenty of action. The publisher is yelling at the engraver, or the printer is yelling at the publisher. Barry MacKay is just walking in, or Tony Trabert is just walking out. Tennis fans stop in to buy an issue. The phone rings. Dick Savitt calls. Bill Talbert is on the other phone. Another deadline. A press conference. A martini on the run. The printer is angry, the publisher furious. But am I happy? YOU BET!”


In 1969, the US Open was carried over for two or three extra days after rain caused the tournament to fall behind. Leading players like Rod Laver (who had just completed his second singles Grand Slam on the Forest Hills grass), John Newcombe and Tony Roche pulled out of the doubles quarterfinals and semifinals to honor other commitments elsewhere, angering US Open fans and officials. Many expected Gladys to automatically support the players, but she declared, “This magazine has solidly backed the players for 17 years, but there is no doubt the three players were wrong. They are the nicest guys in the game, they are gentlemen, they are honorable. But no one is infallible. These players are probably now regretting the unfortunate precedent they established. Well, boys, what are you doing to do about it?”


It was only one year after Gladys wrote that clear-eyed and forthright editorial that she celebrated her finest hour. She, of course, was a gifted woman with gumption who was as well suited to the role of promoter as she was sitting behind a typewriter and creating journalism of the highest order. In 1970, she signed nine leading women competitors (“The Original Nine”) including Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Rosie Casals and her daughter Julie, to $1 pro contracts in Houston as they broke away from amateur authorities. Heldman convinced Joe Cullman, C.E.O of Philip Morris, to bring Virginia Slims in as a sponsor and held a groundbreaking tournament, which was won by Casals. 

Photo credit: Getty Images

The women were getting badly shortchanged by tournaments early in the Open Era, all of which paid the men players substantially more. Heldman found that intolerable. Later in the fall of 1970, Heldman organized a second tournament in Richmond, Va. The following year, the women played a full circuit, featuring 21 tournaments. The rest was history. Deservedly, Heldman earned the nickname “The Mother of Women’s Tennis.” As Nancy Richey said, “It was a very special thing we were part of, and Gladys Heldman gets all the credit.”


To be sure, King was rightfully heralded for her role in spearheading the tour as a superstar player giving tirelessly of her time, but no one was as indispensable as Heldman. She was the one that made it happen. Her ingenuity, steadfastness and deep well of determination were the reason the women were able to establish their own circuit at a time when most of the game’s insiders thought it would be next to impossible. Yet Heldman refused to believe the skeptics, trusting her own instincts and the vision she had for women to move toward equal prize money and fairer treatment. And when Heldman fully believed in something, failure was out of the question.


When asked about how women’s tennis evolved so significantly in the early 70s, Heldman said, “People wondered if this was Women’s Lib and I said, no, it’s Women’s Lob. We did not connect it then with a movement.”


But a movement it was, and a movement it became. And Heldman was the central figure in the evolution of women’s tennis. Ron Bookman was her successor as editor of World Tennis in the early 70s. As he once said, “Without Gladys there would be no women’s tennis as we know it.”  Herbert Warren Wind of the New Yorker concurred, writing, “The story of the women’s pro tour is largely the story of the strong-minded, peppery Gladys Heldman, who has been a considerable force in tennis.”


Quite clearly she was. No wonder Heldman landed at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979 for her incomparable contributions. Primarily, Heldman was a Hall of Famer for two central reasons: running World Tennis Magazine with such far-reaching impact; and galvanizing the women to have their own tour.  She was a figure of extraordinary clout, and one of the smartest individuals ever to reside in the upper reaches of the sport. If she had a flaw, it was that her mind moved so swiftly sometimes even learned individuals could not keep up with her flow of ideas.


As Bookman said, “World Tennis Magazine served as her base for force-feeding progress down the reluctant throat of a tradition-bound sport. Always agitating for progress, challenging the establishment on behalf of the players, doing as well as dreaming—that was Gladys.”


Over a 30-year period, I knew Gladys Heldman well, and considered her a good friend. After she sold World Tennis to CBS in 1972, Gladys kept contributing to the magazine with monthly instructional pieces over the next two decades, which I coordinated with her for many years. Her passion for tennis remained undiminished and her wit and wisdom were unparalleled. 


Not long before she died at 81 in 2003, Heldman sent me a note inviting my family out to her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she had a magnificent indoor court on her property. She said, “We hope you and your family will visit us soon. Don’t wait too long, for we may soon be in a far better world where there are no linesmen or umpires.”


I am certain she is up there in that better world now, calling it as she sees it, sprinkling winners on every cloud covered court, knowing she left behind a shining legacy in this world as the conscience of the game and the biggest booster and brightest mind that women’s tennis has ever known.

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