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Original 9, Valerie Ziegenfuss: "We had to get people in the stands"
“I use the word product because it was selling ‘our game’ and ‘our matches’ to the general public,” Ziegenfuss told Tennis Channel.
Published Sep 20, 2020
For more on the WTA's Original 9, read our write-ups on each of tennis' trailblazing women.
When tennis' Open Era began in 1968, Valerie Ziegenfuss was the first to complete a match in Bournemouth, England. Prize money at that event, and every one that followed, was determined by how far players progressed in each round—though female competitors were paid significantly less than their male peers.
There was little data to compare at that point. The women though, began to uncover how far sexism stretched within their sport, and Ziegenfuss vividly remembers men going to the press with counterarguments justifying the inequalities. Quotes like “they don’t deserve it”, “we play three out of five at the Grand slams” or “they don’t have the depth,” dominated that narrative.
When it came to a group of bold women ultimately saying enough is enough on September 23, 1970, Ziegenfuss knew she and her Original 9 contemporaries needed to approach their risky breakaway as more than just a playing opportunity.
“I use the word product because it was selling ‘our game’ and ‘our matches’ to the general public,” said Ziegenfuss, who was just 21 when she signed a groundbreaking $1 contract with Gladys Heldman. “We had to get people in the stands. We had to make them aware that women’s tennis is really good. The only other thing at that time was women’s golf and they didn’t have big sponsors, so we had to prove our product was worthwhile.”
The sponsor of the new circuit, Virginia Slims, played its pivotal role in providing the financial investment. External feedback was critical to getting off the ground too, aided by the fact each woman put in the work locally. From cocktail parties to grocery store lines, every avenue to get the word out was pursued. The result of the efforts would become evident through increased attendance.
“We always had so many people come up to us after our matches and say, ‘I really liked watching women’s tennis’, ‘I really like watching your matches better’, because at the time the men were two hit wonders,” Ziegenfuss told Tennis Channel. “We are very proud we had no idea it would grow to be this. It’s kind of ‘you did that Val, you stuck your neck out.’ It was kind of the time like why not, what do we have to lose?
“We were the first and we did take a risk. We did something that grew beyond expectations, so we are very proud of that.”