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Nine dollars that changed sports history

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Originally published on: 23/09/10 18:19

Their smiles tell a story. There was undoubtedly a sense of irony as they held their cheques aloft, beaming for the photographer, but also a sense of change, of rebellion, of justice.

The ‘Original Nine’: Rosie Casals,
Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville,
Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon,
Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss
Julie Heldman and Billie Jean King

The nine women – Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss Julie Heldman and Billie Jean King – had just signed weeklong $1 contracts with Gladys Heldman, founder and publisher of World Tennis magazine, that allowed them to play in the Virginia Slims Invitational – the first women-only professional tournament, held in Houston, Texas in 1970.

Those nine dollars signed them to a tournament with a prize pot of $7,500. Compare that to the seven-figure sums regularly on offer at today’s tournaments, and you see how far the WTA Tour has come as a business. As a beacon for sporting egalitarianism, however, if has come even further.

Billie Jean King fell into the position of unofficial union leader for the women’s game. Her Wimbledon triumph in 1968 landed her a cheque for £750. That same year, Rod Laver took home £2000 for winning the men’s title.

The disparity was wider away from the Slams. “All the tournaments were run by men or owned by men,” recalls King. “A lot of them dropped the women’s event and just didn’t have them – or, if they did have them, the ratio of prize money was like 11 or 12-to-one, even though we were playing in front of full crowds. It got me a little crazy.”

Her former husband Larry King suggested that she and her fellow players form a breakaway Tour. King, Casals and Richey contacted Heldman, who made the dream a reality with the help of cigarette firm Virginia Slims.

Inevitably, there was opposition to the new venture. “Jeopardising the chance to play Grand Slams was probably the riskiest part of going against the old establishment,” recalls Casals. “We were really second-class citizens when we played at tournaments alongside the men, and that meant all tournaments.”

Australians Dalton and Melville were suspended by their national association the day they signed their $1 contract, while King missed out on a shot at a calendar slam in 1972 when the Australian Open clashed with a Virginia Slims tournament in San Francisco.

But King, Dalton, Melville, Casals, and the other members of the breakaway group later dubbed the ‘Original Nine’ stuck with it, aware they were making history with every ball struck. A year later, the Virigina Slims Tour was born, a 24-tournament schedule with $250,000 on offer.

“I felt a sense of both fear and exhilaration,” recalls King, four decades on. “We knew we were making history and we had such a strong sense of purpose. I just kept thinking about the vision we had for the future of our sport. We wanted to ensure that any girl in the world that was good enough would have a place to go and make a living playing tennis.”

Today’s stars on the WTA Tour regularly
compete for seven-figure sums and are
among the richest athletes in the world

The Tour was a success, and after the era-defining victory for King over Bobby Riggs in the infamous ‘Battle of the Sexes’, the competing USLTA and Viginia Slims Tours merged in 1973 and the Women’s Tennis Association was born. Today, women receive equal prize money at each of the Grand Slams and Tier 1 events, and the players are multi-millionaires.

“Today’s players are living our vision,” King says. “In 1970, and even a few years after we signed the $1 contract with Gladys, people never believed women’s tennis would be a global sport and that players would be making the money they make today. But it is a reality and I know today’s players will continue our dreams for future generations.”

Maria Sharapova, the world’s highest-paid female athlete admitted to feeling “humbled by what these nine women have done for my career. I am personally grateful for their vision and their ‘fight’ for all the generations that followed them.”

“We are fortunate to be in the position we are in today, with the same prize money as the guys at combined events, and we owe a lot of that to what these women did 40 years ago,” added former world No.1 Ana Ivanovic in a statement on the WTA Tour website.

“Billie Jean King and her team of pioneers – the Original Nine – 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. “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.”

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