King, original 9 reunite to honor women's tennis

Published Apr. 8, 2012 3:10 a.m. ET

Billie Jean King loves sharing the story of how the Women's Tennis Association began. She's far less comfortable taking all the credit for changing the sports world.

King and eight other players broke away from the tennis establishment in 1970, eventually leading to the WTA and an era where female athletes could demand equal pay and conditions on the courts.

The ''Original 9'' were reunited for just the second time since then, their legacy celebrated at the 40th anniversary of the Family Circle Cup this weekend.

''I get all the kudos, but the eight players here did just as much or sometimes more,'' King said.

They all signed $1 contracts in 1970 with the publisher of World Tennis Magazine, Gladys Heldman, to begin a series of women's professional tournaments.

''We had no idea that this little dollar would turn into millions,'' Casals said Saturday.

King and the others were protesting inequities in prize money and bonuses at tournaments where men got what King said was often more than 10 times what the women earned. She received $600 for winning the 1970 Italian Open, while men's champion Ilie Nastase earned $3,500.


The WTA tour was formed in 1973, and now players travel to countries around the world and benefit from millions in prize money.

The Family Circle offered an unheard of $100,000 in total prize money for its first women's event. This year's champion will earn $115,000 of the nearly $750,000 in prize money.

King recalled going to Heldman's home regularly to discuss what would come next.

The group - King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman - stepped out on a limb, King said, by signing the contracts.

King said officials of what is now the USTA called her, asking not to form the women's tour. There were threats of bans from Grand Slam events.

''It was a very difficult time, but we figured it out,'' King said.

Still, Ziegenfuss said there was little hesitation to break away. The group believed in King, Heldman and the product of women's tennis.

''That doesn't take courage,'' she said.

The two Australians in the group, Kerry Melville-Reid and Judy Dalton, recalled being athletic outcasts back home after starting the women's tour. What they started, though, began to pick up steam. The same year the WTA was founded in 1973, the U.S. Open offered equal prize money to men and women for the first time.

Their efforts helped raise awareness of other inequalities between men and women. The landmark federal legislation Title IX, passed in 1972, has increased opportunities for women in education and college sports.

The nine's accomplishments have reached far beyond the tennis courts.

Former U.S. women's soccer standout Julie Foudy recalls talking with King in 1995 when she and other team members were unsure how to gain a foothold in their sport. Foudy told King their problems about making a living while competing for their country and King told her about the founding of the women's tennis circuit.

''It was like this epiphany for me,'' Foudy said.

WTA CEO Stacey Allaster said the founding group didn't just give ''little girls the dreams they could play professional tennis, you gave little girls the dreams that they could be CEOs of companies.''

That legacy was celebrated at a dinner Friday night that honored the nine founders. A team tennis exhibition will feature Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and John McEnroe on Saturday night. Proceeds from the event will go to a WTA assistance fund, designed to help former players and tournament directors going through hard times.

On Saturday night, Family Circle Tennis Center's stadium surface was rechristened ''Billie Jean King Court,'' her name unveiled on the walls behind both baselines. ''This is quite an honor,'' she said.

King is pleased the next generation of tennis stars have ''picked up the torch.''

''To think of all the hard work the original nine did benefited all the generations of women's tennis is something that we're grateful for,'' said former player and current ESPN broadcaster Pam Shriver.

The fight for equality in sports hasn't slowed. King thanked Venus Williams for helping convince Wimbledon organizers to offer equal prize money - the last holdout among Grand Slam tournaments - in 2007.

Williams, who lost to Samantha Stosur in the Family Circle quarterfinals Friday, understands that without the nine founding players and others like them, she might not have had such a rewarding career.

''There's so many people who fought for me to have this opportunity here, so I think that it's the (Family Circle) 40th anniversary is very special,'' she said.

Serena Williams, who reached the final by defeating Stosur on Saturday, believes other groups can learn from the example of King and the founders.

''I think women's tennis right now is doing amazing,'' she said. ''We're getting paid the same amount as men. We have a shorter season than the men.

''I think they need to stand up for themselves because I think we've done everything that we could.''


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