INDUCTION CEREMONY SPEECHES: The Original 9

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NEWPORT, R.I.—When the Original 9 contract tennis professionals are inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino Saturday afternoon, they will become the first group enshrined as Contributors to the sport.

That only seems fitting given that, as a whole, Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kristy Pigeon, Kerry Melville Reid, Nancy Richey and Val Ziegenfuss did more for women’s tennis than any other entity in the sport’s history.

Staring down the glares and threats of tennis’s male-dominated hierarchy, World Tennis magazine founder Gladys Heldman orchestrated the revolt that was heard around the world and led to the riches that the women’s game enjoys today. It is ironic then that collectively the Original 9 earned less in career prize money than Ashleigh Barty did for winning the 2019 Shisedo WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China.

Granted, in 1970, when Heldman convinced Joe Cullman and his Virginia Slims brand to put up $7,500 to launch the first professional women’s tournament in Houston and then staged a photo op showing the first nine touring pros waving $1 bills in the air, a regular gallon of gasoline in the U.S. cost $.36, a postage stamp just $.6 and the average cost of a new home was little more than $26,000.

But Barty’s staggering $4.42 in prize money from the year-end championships is more than double the $1,966,487 that King made over the course of her 31-year career that included 39 major championships in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Within that count were six Wimbledon wins and four U.S. championships. King was also the first female tennis player to earn $100,000 in a single season, 1971. By comparison, second-round losers at Wimbledon in 2021 earned $105,861.

The only other member of the Original 9 to earn more than a million dollars in her career was Rosie Casals, who took home $1,500 for winning the first Virginia Slims Invitational in Houston in 1970 and another $3,750 as runner-up to Margaret Court at the 1970 US Open. In all, Casals accrued $1,362,222 on the court. She and King, as well as Richey, who captured 69 singles titles in her career, have already been enshrined individually in the Hall of Fame and are now the only inductees to be enshrined in the Player and Contributor category.

“I think it’s exciting to see the kind of money that is going into women’s tennis now,” said the 72-year-old Casals, who joined seven of the nine players in Newport for the induction ceremonies. Only Dalton, who was unable to travel from Australia for the celebration due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Richey were absent. “It’s a sign of the times. I’d love to have had endorsements with Louis Vuitton (as Naomi Osaka currently has) but we were lucky to get our rackets, shoes and clothing for free. I think I’ll ask for a few wild cards now and see what happens.”

According to Casals, introducing women’s tennis to the public was an uphill battle at first.

“I remember when Billie Jean reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1964, we were getting on the plane to come home and Billie was holding something like 12 rackets in her arms,” she said. “The pilot asked her if she was a rep for Wilson. Now, with all of the social media, players like Osaka are household names. We were just very limited in our marketing savvy.”

Thanks to the marketing savvy of the WTA Tour, which in 2019 offered up total prize money worldwide of $179 million, no fewer than 44 female pros earned $1 million that year, in addition their personal endorsements. Figures are a bit skewed for the 2020 and 2021 because of the stoppage in play due to the pandemic.

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Wimbledon champion Barty, at age 25, has already amassed more than $21 million in career prize money, including $3,509,962 so far this year, as well as millions more in endorsement dollars. She leads the tour in 2021 in earnings with Roland Garros winner Barbora Krejcikova and Australian Open titlist Osaka close behind. Seventeen-year-old Coco Gauff is the eleventh of the 11 players who have won $1 million with the season barely halfway over.

That all pales in comparison to the $94,518,971 in prize money that Serena Williams, the sport’s overall top earner, has amassed. She has more than doubled that figure in endorsements. Her sister, Venus comes in right behind her with $42,276,755 in earnings.

In all, an astounding 443 WTA players all-time have won more than $1 million, including former pro Cristina Torrens Valero from Spain who never advanced beyond the third round at a major and who was never ranked in the world’s top 25 and yet still managed to bag $1,000,722 during her 15-year playing career.

Right now, 55 women players in history have earned more than $10 million in prize money, including former doubles specialist Lisa Raymond. That doesn’t include Hall of Famer and former world No. 1 Chris Evert who captured seven French Opens, six US Opens three Wimbledons and two Australian Open titles. In what has to be her lowest ranking ever, Evert comes in at No. 61 on the all-time prize money list with $8,896,195. Close behind her are current pros Aryna Sabalenka and Elise Mertens, neither of whom has ever reached the singles final at a major. King drops in at No. 263 all-time, just ahead of current player Bernarda Pera and behind former pro Carina Witthoeft of Germany. Neither Pera nor Witthoeft has ever ranked in the top 45 in the world.

“I want 10 percent please,” joked Julie Heldman when told about the staggering amount of money won by the women who have come along after her and her compatriots. Then Heldman got sober.

“All the money in tennis is a double-edged sword,” said the 75-year-old Heldman, who graduated from Stanford and UCLA law school after her playing days were over. “It’s wonderful that so many women are reaping the rewards from what we sowed. But the amount of pressure that is put on these young women is crushing. They have no privacy when they go to a restaurant and most of them gave up their childhoods to pursue this dream.”

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Heldman speaks from experience. In her 2018 autobiography, Driven, Heldman, whose mother fought so hard to force equality for men and women in the game, wrote of suffering from mental illness for many years. She understands and sympathizes with what Osaka is going through now.

“How could someone not suffer from depression when they are booed off the court after winning the US Open, as Osaka did in 2018,” said Heldman. “Fame and fortune can only go so far. To me, being rich is far less important than doing right. I truly believe that.”

As for Casals, she too believes that, even in a sport that drops millionaires like gumballs in an arcade, there is something far more important than being rich.

“We never played for the money,” said Casals, who started the Love & Love Tennis Foundation with fellow former pro Tory Fretz as a way to give back to the sport. “We played, and still play, because we love the game. Our generation is always giving back. That’s what we’re all about. I just hope that the current players continue that legacy and take some of that prize money and give back to the WTA for all the glory they have gotten. In the end, giving and getting go hand in hand.”