The Original Nine: In Their Own Words
The Original Nine, the trailblazing group of women responsible for the advent of women's professional tennis, broke away from the men's tour in 1970 in order to take a stand for equal pay.
The historic group—made up of Americans Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss, and Australians Judy Tegart Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid—signed symbolic $1 contracts with World Tennis Magazine publisher Gladys Heldman to compete in a new women's event. Their efforts paved the way for the Virginia Slims circuit, which eventually became the WTA Tour as it's known today.
In February, the International Tennis Hall of Fame announced that the Original Nine would be inducted into Newport as part of the Class of 2021.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Original Nine during the summer of 2020, International Tennis Hall of Fame writer and historian Steve Flink caught up with each member for an interview series on USTA.com. Below are some of the highlights from each conversation. Follow the links to read the full interviews.
Billie Jean King
King, the most indispensable member of this groundbreaking contingent, was the central figure among the nine players. Without her extraordinarily vibrant brand of leadership and her indefatigable fighting spirit, the women’s game today would be in a very different and lesser place.
She captured the imaginations of fans everywhere she went with her intellectual brand of attacking tennis, seeking at every turn to reshape history by embracing goals and causes that were much larger than herself or her personal aspirations, striving to make a difference both on and off the court.
"We, as the Original Nine, were not doing it for ourselves," said King. "Without it, I would not have been who I am. Never in 100 years would I have had the life I have without the nine of us all sticking together. Most of us still stay in touch. There is a bond there when we see each other that you can never take from anybody."
A powerful left-hander out of California, Pigeon was just 20 years old but had already reached the Wimbledon Round of 16 twice before signing on for the new women's tour. She played on the tour through 1975, dividing her time between professional tennis and her studies at UC-Berkeley, where she was a 1973 graduate.
"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."
Kerry Melville Reid
An Australian baseliner, Reid was a fixture in the women's Top 10 prior to joining the Original Nine. But her best results came after signing on the dotted line for $1 in 1970—she reached the US Open final in 1972, beating Chris Evert in the semis before falling to King in the final, and won her home major at the 1977 Australian Open.
"The fact that Billie Jean King was No. 1 in the world back then and was putting her career on the line was one reason I did it... It just kind of evolved. We were there at the right time. We bonded and went with it. It was just a crazy and exciting time for all of us... We ended up getting banned in Australia. So it was a big risk, but we didn’t think too much about that. We were excited to be doing something new that could have a deep effect on the game."
Just 21 when she became a part of the Original Nine, Jane "Peaches" Bartkowicz was one of the most dominant juniors in the history of American tennis, claiming 17 national junior titles before turning her attention to the pro game. Ahead of her time with her two-handed backhand, she was undefeated for Team USA in Fed Cup play throughout her career.
"It was time to make a stand. We are proud we did it, all nine of us. These are my sisters. They are family... They have come to my aid, like when I had a bone marrow transplant four-and-a-half years ago... 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. "
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 singles across the years, she had wins over the likes of Billie Jean King, Kerry Melville Reid, Virginia Wade and Julie Heldman.
"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."
Judy Tegart Dalton
A singles finalist at Wimbledon in 1968—the first Wimbledon of the Open era, where she fell to King in the title match—Tegart Dalton won nine majors in her career, including eight in women's doubles and one in mixed. She won each of the Grand Slams at least once, teaming with Margaret Court for five titles. At age 32 in 1970, the Aussie was the oldest of the Original Nine. She reached the final at the new tour's first event in Houston.
"I don’t think any of us realized what we had actually done [at the time]. Yes, we wanted to see if women’s tournaments could make a go of it, and then we had the very first one in Houston and people came out to see us. It was quite successful. We started a circuit. But not until much later on did anyone quite realize what was happening. Maybe it was three years later when we started the WTA that it became more apparent, and it went from there. It wasn’t just the tournaments, either. Title IX came in, and women’s equality was coming in, as well, all at that same time."
The International Tennis Hall of Famer, born in San Francisco to working-class parents from El Salvador, was ranked world No. 3 in 1970. After reaching the US Open final that summer, she grabbed a piece of history by winning the first event of the new women's tour—the Houston Women's Invitational. Casals' behind-the-scenes work was critical to the formation of the Original Nine, and her ties to King also extended to the doubles court, where the pair won five Grand Slam doubles title together. Casals won a total of nine women's doubles major title and three mixed.
"We were young, and our life was good. It was the beginning of our careers. It had not been a happy summer for us leading up to Houston. We were playing with the men, and Open tennis had come along a few years earlier, but the men were getting more of everything—the prize money, the show courts and other things. So there was a lot of discontent amongst the women that led up to Houston."
A two-time Grand Slam singles champ from Texas, Richey was ranked the No. 1 American four times in her career, from 1960-76. She won the Australian Championships in 1967, then claimed the first French Open in '68, as the Open era began. Her brother, Cliff, also achieved the No. 1 American ranking, in 1970, making the siblings the first brother-sister combination from the United States to hold that distinction.
"We had good crowds, and they seemed to really like the product. The attendance was very good from the start. The men thought we would totally flop, but we didn’t. It was a successful product from the beginning. The only blowback we got was a little bit about having a cigarette sponsor with Virginia Slims. There was a good response to our tennis and our different styles of play."
The daughter of Gladys Heldman, the driving force behind the original Virginia Slims circuit, Julie was intimately involved as a participant and a powerful crusader in her own right. A perennial Top 10 player in the 1960s and ‘70s, she climbed to high points of No. 2 in the United States and the Top 5 in the world during an outstanding career aided by an remarkable intellect on the court.
Heldman was a U.S. champion in girls’ 15 singles in 1960 and girls’ 18 singles in 1963. A winner of 22 titles on the pro tour, she reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and the US Open in 1974.
"Everybody knew it was a risk, and everybody was somewhat scared, but we were doing this not just for ourselves but for the future. This was the way we would have to change the women’s tennis world... we fought our hearts out to make this happen. Had there not been a rebellion in 1970, I don’t know what would have happened with women’s tennis, but I believe it would have taken a lot longer to build the game."