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The leap of faith by WTA's Original 9 was as gutsy as it was gigantic
The moment capturing Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kerry Melville, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss holding up $1 bills wasn’t an act of spontaneity—it was an act of advocacy.
Published Sep 14, 2020
For more on the WTA's Original 9, read our write-ups on each of tennis' trailblazing women.
Being unafraid to take a leap of faith requires courage, self-belief, and trust. For a group of nine female tennis players, their leap on September 23, 1970 was as gutsy as it was gigantic.
Seeking equality, in pay, promotion and opportunity, the “Original 9” set out on their own by signing $1 contracts at the inaugural Virginia Slims Invitational in Houston. The moment capturing Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kerry Melville, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss holding up $1 bills wasn’t an act of spirited spontaneity—it was an act of actionable advocacy.
“From ‘68 to ’70, we just had less places to compete. They were dropping women's tournaments,” King reflected with Tennis Channel. “We were making anywhere from probably eight to one ratio of money.
“The writing was on the wall. If you look at old quotes in the old days, around the late 60s and 70s, you'll see that the men were telling us we should quit and go take care of our husbands.”
Added Heldman, “In the year 1970, there was a total of $5,000 in prize money for women in the United States that was on the calendar. That was the entire year.”
Houston Public Library
Her mother, Gladys Heldman, was the owner and publisher of World Tennis magazine. With that came a strong network of connections within the industry, making her a formidable figure for women players to seek out assistance in escaping control of their tennis associations by proving their product was worth the investment.
“She was just the best promoter ever. We were so lucky to have Gladys Heldman take us on,” said Ziegenfuss. “We had to get people in the stands, we had to make them aware that women’s tennis is really good. Gladys was amazing [in] how she put tournaments together. She knew the sponsors; she knew tournament directors.”
The $1 contracts the Original 9 signed to become "contract pros" is the official starting point we look back on in history. But the countless hours, trips and work that followed afterwards, building a product from the ground up, is the legacy that should never be lost on today’s players and fans. For it was these efforts in developing a following, from handing out tickets at grocery stores and hosting clinics with club members, to adapting with spectator feedback and delivering week after week on the court, that led to the creation of the WTA tour—and ultimately proving the men wrong with the eventual awarding of equal prize money by all four Grand Slam events.