Fifty Years of the WTA
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Fifty Years of the WTA
Before the “Original 9,” there was Gladys Heldman, who launched the women's tennis revolution
Watch the first-part of our year-long series on the 50th anniversary of the WTA Tour.
Published Jan 24, 2023
⬆️⬆️ MUST WATCH: Fifty Years of the WTA, Chapter 1 ⬆️⬆️
More than a quarter-century before Gladys Heldman revolutionized the sports world by creating and running the Virginia Slims Circuit—which in time became the WTA Tour—she acquired specialized knowledge that made her perfectly equipped to navigate the beautiful yet chaotic terrain of tennis. In 1943, twelve months after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford (in three years), Heldman earned a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. The subject: medieval history.
Anyone who immerses themselves in the Middle Ages enters a landscape much like tennis, a series of territories that teem with ambiguous borders, warring factions, autocratic and uncertain leaders, lords and serfs, roguish soldiers of fortune, disparate geographic configurations and biases, contradictory and cryptic beliefs, and a troubling lack of functional documentation. Heldman dove into all of it, brilliantly able to envision the big picture and immerse herself in countless minor details that comprise a subculture. Such study would prove vital for what she in time brought to tennis.
Gladys Medalie was born on May 13, 1922. Her father was a prominent New York City attorney, a close associate and friend of such notables as future New York governor and two-time Republican nominee for president Thomas Dewey. When Gladys applied to Stanford, she received a letter of recommendation from a distinguished alumni and family friend, President Herbert Hoover.
At Stanford, Gladys met a chemistry graduate student named Julius Heldman. Julius was a first-rate tennis player, in 1936 beating future Hall of Famer Joe Hunt to win the National Boys’ 18 Championships. Julius and Gladys were married in 1942 and soon had two children, Carrie and Julie. Once Julius earned a doctorate, he launched a highly accomplished career in science, including work on the Manhattan Project and decades as a prominent executive with Shell Oil.
Around the time of Julie’s 1945 birth, the Heldmans joined Northern California’s iconic tennis venue, the Berkeley Tennis Club. Though Gladys had previously enjoyed learning about Julius’ sport, it wasn’t until they were at the Berkeley Tennis Club that she began to play tennis frequently—well, more than frequently. Gladys took hour after hour of lessons from the club’s head pro, Tom Stow, a prominent instructor who’d helped Don Budge become No. 1 in the world. The fire lit, and she became an excellent player—a late bloomer good enough to eventually earn entry into the main draws of Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships.
But it wasn’t Gladys’ racquet that would make her a tennis legend. Much as she loved to play tennis, Heldman was even more passionate about dissecting the sport, and perhaps even changing it. In 1953, after moving to New York City, she launched World Tennis. It was like nothing tennis had ever seen before.
As Julie wrote in her memoir, Driven, “It’s astonishing that a young woman had the courage to start such a large venture in the male-dominated world of the early 1950s.”
How best to describe World Tennis in its glory years? First, it was filled with news, from in-depth stories about tournaments on all continents, to back pages offering detailed tournament scores, from the first rounds to the finals. There were also portraits of the greats and others of interest, tidbits of gossip, historic flashbacks, instruction, insight, panels, fashion and a deeply informed, highly opinionated and extensive letters-to-the-editor section. Month after month, year after year, World Tennis was infused and flavored by Heldman’s zeal for the sport and the wide-ranging voice she brought, to everything from a player’s new baby to thoughts about the game’s direction.
Among those Heldman covered was her own daughter, Julie, who by 1969 reached a career-high No. 5 in the world.
But Heldman was not merely a journalistic witness. She was a participant, keen to overtly share her views on what was right and wrong about tennis—and how to fix it. One example came in 1962. Prior to that year’s U.S. Championships, amid concerns that a great many Europeans were considering skipping the tournament, Heldman arranged for ten people to contribute $18,000 to cover the cost of a charter flight from Amsterdam that would carry 85 players. Among the donors was a close Heldman friend and World Tennis advertiser, Philip Morris CEO Joe Cullman. Ten percent of the funds also came from Heldman’s own pocket.
It’s astonishing that a young woman had the courage to start such a large venture in the male-dominated world of the early 1950s. Julie Heldman, on her mother, Gladys
In today’s parlance, Heldman would be called a community builder, fighting the good fight during tennis’ frequently own version of the Dark Ages, a complicated time that lasted well into the late 1960s.
“Here we had this great sport, but it was torn in two,” Jack Kramer told me once. “The amateurs were winning the big titles, but weren’t allowed to earn money. The pros were making money, but couldn’t play those big events. It was terrible.”
Kramer and Heldman would cross paths during the summer and fall of 1970. By that year, Open tennis had been underway for two years, the gap between pros and amateurs largely eliminated. But as Billie Jean King pointed out, “the money was coming in, but we women were being squeezed out.” Matters came to a head in August, when Kramer announced that the Los Angeles-based tournament he ran, the Pacific Southwest Open, planned to offer the women eight times less money than the men.
Upset by this, King, along with fellow pros Nancy Richey and Rosie Casals, knew just who they could turn to. The three of them met with Heldman during the US Open, who figured the first step would be to appeal directly to Kramer. As King recalled, at the end of his second conversation with Heldman, Kramer lashed out and said he was thinking of offering the women no prize money at all.
With the kind of urgency that marked her entire life, Heldman swiftly came up with another idea: boycott Kramer’s tournament and stage an event that same week in Houston, the city she and Julius were moving to in September. The tournament sponsor was Virginia Slims, a cigarette brand launched by Cullman’s Philip Morris only two years earlier.
The Virginia Slims Invitational began on September 23, 1970. The participants—nine women, later dubbed the “Original 9,” each of whom signed $1 professional contracts with Heldman. Added to the mix was that cigarette ads had been banned from American television as of January 1, 1971. Seeking another way to generate exposure for its brand, Philip Morris found a perfect vehicle in women’s tennis. By 1971, with Heldman running the tour, the full-fledged Virginia Slims Circuit was underway, offering more than $300,000 in prize money.
So began the revolution, with Heldman at the forefront, in tandem with nine courageous players. All ten of these rebels with a cause have been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
“Without Gladys Heldman,” said King, “there wouldn’t be women’s professional tennis.”