- Original 9 led by Billie Jean King provided foundation for first women’s professional tennis circuit
- 40 years marked by unprecedented growth, with prize money increasing from $309,100 to $85 million
ST. PETERSBURG, FL, USA – Forty years ago today, women’s professional tennis was born when nine players, called the Original 9 and led by Billie Jean King, signed symbolic $1 contracts with the late Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis publications, to compete in the newly-created Virginia Slims Circuit. On September 23, 1970, Billie Jean King, joined by Rosemary Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss, and Julie Heldman (pictured to the left), decided to participate in the inaugural $7,500 Virginia Slims of Houston event that was financially backed by Philip Morris’ Joe Cullman. The Virginia Slims of Houston paved the way for other tournaments of its kind and led to the creation of 19 others, offering total prize money of $309,100. Subsequently, in 1971, King became the first female athlete in history to pass the six-figure mark in single season earnings.
"When the nine of us signed $1 contracts with Gladys, one of our goals was to create opportunities for new generations,” said Billie Jean King. “We wanted to make sure that any young girl, if she was good enough and if she wanted to, would have the opportunity to make a living playing tennis. Now, 40 years later, we are seeing our dreams come to life.”
“Billie Jean King and her team of pioneers – the Original 9 – will forever serve as inspiration for every woman who has ever had a goal and a dream,” said Stacey Allaster, Chairman and CEO of the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association). “Sports are a microcosm of society and Billie Jean and her fellow players were able to use tennis as a platform for social change, one that’s led to incredible opportunities for millions of women around the world.”
The WTA was founded following a meeting held during the 1973 Wimbledon Championships at the Gloucester Hotel in London, which united all of women’s professional tennis into one Tour. Billie Jean King was the original president of the Women’s Tennis Association, which in 1974 further increased its financial stature by signing a television broadcast contract with CBS, the first in the history of women’s professional sports. Also in 1974, the US Open offered women tennis players equal prize money to their male counterparts.
By 1980, there were more than 250 professional women tennis players competing all over the world in the WTA’s 47 events with total prize money of $7.2 million. During the 1980’s, Martina Navratilova became the first woman to earn more than $1 million in a single season. She bettered that effort in 1984 by crossing the $2-million mark in single season prize money, earning more than John McEnroe, the men’s World No.1 at the time.
In 2001, overall WTA prize money increased to $50 million with 63 events, including inaugural tournaments in the Middle East’s cities of Doha, Qatar and Dubai, UAE. In 2005, the WTA struck a landmark 6-year, $88 million deal when Sony Ericsson agreed to become the sport’s worldwide title sponsor, marking the largest and most comprehensive sponsorship in the history of tennis and of women's professional sport. By 2009, the WTA total prize money had grown to $85 million.
The historic achievement of equal prize money at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2007 meant that following a 37-year campaign that began with Billie Jean King and the Original 9, all four Grand Slams offered parity for the first time. Six other tournaments have followed in the Grand Slams’ footsteps and now offer equal prize money, including the year-end WTA Championships.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
Photo: Ted Tinling