The nine women who changed history

 - Danielle Rossingh

Why today’s tennis stars owe a debt to the “Original 9”

Original 9©Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith. Clockwise from top left: Valerie Ziegenfuss, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Julie Heldman, Rosie Casals, Kerry Melville Reid, Judy Dalton.

Led by Naomi Osaka, nine of the world’s 10 best-paid female athletes of the past year are professional tennis players.

For all the advancements that have been made in recent years in terms of gender and pay equality, tennis remains the leading professional sport in which young girls and women can make a living.

The multi-millionaire tennis stars of today have a group of nine women to thank. Dubbed the “Original 9”, they risked everything half a century ago to start a professional tour of their own.

One of those pioneers was Julie Heldman, a former world No.5 from the US and the daughter of Gladys Heldman, the publisher of World Tennis magazine.

After tennis turned professional in 1968, the women had been quickly reduced to second-class citizens, with their pay being cut and playing opportunities drying up. By 1970, the men were paid 12 times more than the women at some events.  

“We were going nowhere, rapidly,” recalled Julie Heldman in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “It was the third year of professional tennis, and the men were taking over all the tournaments and there was no money for the women. It was becoming a complete disaster.”

Eventually, a small group of players, led by Billie Jean King and with Nancy Richey and Rosie Casals, went to Gladys Heldman to say “this is terrible, we don’t know what to do. Billie Jean and Rosie had been trying to do a boycott, but a boycott was not possible, because not everybody was in favour of it,” said Julie.

Gladys Heldman, who was well connected in tennis and business circles, decided to help out by putting together a women-only tournament in Houston, Texas. Crucially, she also found a sponsor: Virginia Slims. The cigarette brand was owned by American tobacco giant Philip Morris, whose chairman, Joe Coleman, Gladys had befriended in the late 1960s at the New York country club where she played tennis.

Shortly before the $7,500 Virginia Slims Invitational was due to start, what was then called the US Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) told the players they would be suspended if they took part.

“My mother told them all to come anyway,” said Julie. “And she made a decision based on what was happening in the world of tennis at the moment, to call everybody a contract pro, to be outside of the power of the USLTA.”

On 23 September, 1970, Julie Heldman, King, Casals, Richey, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Peaches Bartkowicz, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Kristy Pigeon broke ranks with the tennis establishment and signed a $1 contract with promoter Gladys Heldman so they could play in the ground-breaking event in Houston.

Ashleigh Barty, Original 9 tribute

They did so knowing they could be banned from playing in the Grand Slam events or in international competitions for their countries.

“That tournament took place while everybody was under this huge cloud,” said Julie. “In the very beginning, of course we were scared. We did not know what was going to happen to us. But from the very beginning, there were very positive signs where we could go.”

The USLTA set up a rival tour, starring Grand Slam record holder Margaret Court and Virgina Wade. But the bold move by the nine trailblazing women and promoter Gladys Heldman would change tennis forever.

In 1971, the Virginia Slims Series made its debut, with 19 tournaments in the US and a prize money pot of $309,100. Two years later, King united all of women’s professional tennis with the foundation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in a London hotel.

Fifty years after the Original 9 signed a $1 contract, the WTA hosts 60 events in 28 countries, with a total prize money pot of $179 million for more than 1,800 players. There is also equal prize money at all four Grand Slam tournaments.

Japan’s Osaka, the reigning US Open champion, is the best-paid female athlete in the world, earning $37.4 million last year from prize money and endorsements, according to Forbes.

“The three things we cared about for the future generations was that any girl in the world, if she was good enough, would have a place to compete,” King told a virtual news conference hosted by the International Tennis Federation last week. “And that, number two, she would be appreciated for her accomplishments, not only her looks. And number three, most importantly, that she was able to make a living.”

The current generation of players know they have a lot to be thankful for.

“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to you nine remarkable women, who were ready to jump without a safety net so that girls and women like me would have the chance to dream big and accomplish things,” former US Open winner Bianca Andreescu said in an open letter to the Original 9 and King, published on the BBC website last week.

The 20-year-old Canadian was paid $3.85 million for winning last year’s US Open, the same as the men’s champion, Rafael Nadal of Spain.

Women’s tennis has come a long way, but the battle isn’t over yet.

“There is so much to do, we are not even close to equality in this world,” said King. “And also we want girls of colour, we want people from all over the world to participate, we want to break down barriers that people have had to face. And we can do that through our sport. Sport is an amazing platform.”