Original 9: A Problem in Houston

Donn Gobbie | July 19, 2021

The Original 9 pose with their symbolic $1 bills Bela Ugrin, Houston Post Photograph, RGD0006N-1970-2841-005, Houston Public Library, HMRC
On September 23, 1970, nine women in Houston, Texas changed the sport of tennis forever. The “Original 9” are set to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July after celebrating their 50th anniversary last September. Texas holds a big place in the creation of the Virginia Slims Circuit and author Donn Gobbie has written extensively about the subject. Donn was kind enough to share a portion of his book with Inside Tennis and we are thrilled to present it to you.


The establishment of “open” tennis in 1968 profoundly impacted the dynamics of world-class tennis. The sport became more visible to the general public, thanks to increased television exposure. For the world’s best male players, open tennis was an opportunity; for the women players, it was a disappointment. 


Tennis was managed and promoted by men, many of whom felt that women’s tennis was insignificant. While there were plenty of open tournaments held only for men, there were no open tournaments held exclusively for women. Tournament directors relegated the women to second-class status, often scheduling their early-round matches to be played in the mornings on remote courts, which usually had limited or no spectator seating. During the first few years of open tennis, some tournaments eliminated the women’s divisions altogether. 


Prize money disparity was the biggest concern for the women players. At tournaments that included men’s and women’s divisions, the women players competed for one-half to as little as one-tenth of what the men received. In the pre-open era, Ann Jones won the British Hard Court Championships four times, but she had no intention of playing in an event that had become discriminatory towards women. 


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From the disparity in prize money, the exclusion from the Pepsi-Cola Grand Prix, and the shrinking tournament schedule, the women players felt they were gradually being squeezed out of the game. The final insult came on the eve of the 1970 U.S. Open, when the prize money at the upcoming Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles was increased from $30,000 to $65,000, thanks to a sponsorship agreement with Pepsi-Cola. As a result, the men’s singles first prize was increased from $4,000 to $12,000, while the women’s first prize remained at $1,500 – the same total offered the previous year. 


When the U. S. Open started the following week, Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals began collecting signatures of women players who were in favor of boycotting the Pepsi-Cola Pacific Southwest Open. They, along with Nancy Richey, joined Gladys Heldman for lunch on the clubhouse terrace. Billie Jean and Rosie explained their intentions to mobilize the women for a boycott, but Gladys was not convinced by that plan. She realized that a boycott would be effective only if all the women players agreed to the protest, which realistically would not happen. Gladys promised to speak with Jack Kramer about the prize money situation when he arrived in New York at the end of the week. 


“The girls are talking about boycotting your tournament,” Heldman said. 


“That’s fine with me,” said Kramer. “I’ll take the $7,500 and throw it in the men’s singles.” 


Gladys knew however that Kramer was speaking in the heat of the moment and had no intentions of carrying out his threat.


Gladys gave Billie Jean and Rosie the bad news: the prize money situation at the Pepsi-Cola Pacific Southwest Open was not going to be changed. Dismayed by the lack of a resolution, Billie Jean and Rosie renewed their conviction to organize a boycott. Gladys began formulating her own solution; she conceived a plan to organize a women’s prize money tournament that would be held at the same time as the Pepsi-Cola Pacific Southwest Open. Such an event would send a clear message that the women players were no longer willing to settle for second-class status. 


Gladys envisioned the tournament to be played over the course of four days, feature eight of the world’s best women players, and offer $5,000 in prize money. However, instead of awarding $1,500 to the winner – as was the case at the Pepsi-Cola Pacific Southwest Open – Gladys wanted to make her event more lucrative by offering $1,600 to the winner.


Houston was the choice for Gladys’ tournament, since the Heldman family was relocating there immediately after the U. S. Open. When the Heldmans lived in Houston in the early 1950s, Julius was elected president of the newly-formed Houston Tennis Association. The association was formed to promote tennis at public facilities, and it soon became, according to World Tennis, the “largest city tennis association in the world,” with 1,500 members and a budget of $26,000. Gladys knew that if the tournament was held at a facility that was not a member club of the USLTA, and if no spectator admission was charged, she would not need a sanction approval from the USLTA and would not have to pay the national association the sanction fee of 6% of the prize money. She also knew – according to the USLTA Standing Orders, as written in the association’s annual guide and yearbook – that players in a non-member facility tournament could not face any disciplinary action from the USLTA if no admission fees were charged and no player expenses were paid. 


As Gladys began to plan the tournament in Houston, one of the first phone calls she made was to Paul Pearce. Earlier that summer she had met Pearce, the Executive Director of the Houston Tennis Association, when he was visiting New York. Gladys explained her plans for the tournament, not mentioning that it would be in direct conflict with the Pepsi-Cola Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles. 


“The reason that Gladys made her first call to me is that I had been in New York in August 1970 and went by her Manhattan office to introduce myself,” Pearce said. “World Tennis magazine was a Bible among tennis players, professional or amateur. Knowing that she had lived in Houston previously when Julius was a chemist with Shell Oil, I was eager to make national connections to do whatever I could to expose tennis efforts in Houston, particularly Youth Tennis Leagues. That was when I was first struck with her iconic image in sunglasses and cigarette smoke. We had a rich, warm conversation, and I left feeling that we had a mutual affinity for tennis. It was not surprising then that a month later, she was calling me. We were kind of rebellious in those days in Houston, and anything that would put us on the “tennis map” was an opportunity.”


Gladys asked Pearce if he could raise $5,000 for a tournament to be held on the public courts in Houston. He was able to secure a $2,000 pledge from George Mitchell, one of the founders of the Houston Racquet Club and a wealthy oil and real estate businessman. However, Pearce could not raise more than the $2,000 and it was decided the tournament would have to be held at the racquet club, which then required a USLTA sanction.


Pearce discussed the proposal with Jim Hight, the president-elect of the Texas Tennis Association, as well as Delores Hornberger, the president of the Women’s Association of the Houston Racquet Club. Delores liked the idea and was intrigued with bringing the world’s best women players to her club. Situated on twenty-three wooded acres on the city’s exclusive west side, the Houston Racquet Club boasted twenty-six tennis courts. It was a dynamic club that could easily raise money; each year its members contributed $25,000 to the Houston Tennis Association’s junior development program. As president of the 500-member Houston Racquet Club Women’s Association, Delores was in a powerful position. If the women’s group wanted to host the tournament, the club management would have to oblige. Members and officers of the Houston Racquet Club Women’s Association comprised the tournament committee included Sybil Stephens, Leslie Creekmore, Nelle Patton, and Charlotte Lorenz.


“This was completely new to the Racquet Club, no one would touch it, and I was dumb enough to think “Yes we can!” Delores said. “I was anxious to see these girls in person…I just had the guts, that’s all.”


Gladys then suggested that the players could circumvent USLTA policy if they temporarily became contract professionals, a category which the national association had no jurisdiction over. The plan was to have each player sign a one-dollar contract with Gladys and World Tennis magazine for the duration of the four-day tournament, after which they could request to have the USLTA reinstate their status as registered players. In truth, this was not a realistic tactic, as the USLTA did not move quickly on reinstatements. Gladys was likely aware of the USLTA red tape regarding the process, and Billie Jean and Rosie most definitely were. In the spring of 1970, it took months for Billie Jean and Rosie to get their status restored by the USLTA after their professional contracts with George MacCall’s National Tennis League had expired. 


As tennis fans began arriving outside for the tournament’s opening match, Gladys and the players remained in the clubhouse for the photographers. With Gladys seated and holding the handwritten contract, and with the players gathered around her, one-dollar bills were distributed. The players held up the bills, happy to finally be in charge of their own tennis careers. The photographs that were taken in the lobby of the Houston Racquet Club documented a milestone in the history of tennis and women’s sports.


To read more about the Original 9, check out Donn Gobbie’s book A Dollar and a Dream: Gladys Heldman, The Original 9 and Women’s Professional Tennis or visit his website
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