For more on the WTA's Original 9, read our write-ups on each of tennis' trailblazing women.
When Billie Jean King learned that Gladys Heldman had lined up Philip Morris to sponsor a trailblazing event that would see women’s tennis players break away from their tour associations in 1970, she nearly passed out. For King had never smoked a day in her life and had concerns about aligning with a tobacco company.
“I'm like, you can't do that. We're athletes,” she said.
Heldman hit back. “Did you sign a $1 contract with me?”
After King told her “yes,” Heldman followed up with another question. “I got the sponsor. Are you gonna play?”
The Long Beach, Calif. native found the exchange pretty funny, and uttered a second confirmation. It would lead her to a momentous day etched in sports history when she and the rest of her Original 9 members officially went out on their own. September 23, 1970, is recognized as the birth of women’s professional tennis, and for King, there was a lot on the line, both professionally and personally, after unsuccessfully trying to join forces with their male counterparts.
“My former husband said you know what will happen if you have pro tennis, the men will kick you out. They will not want you to be part of this even though I said, no, no, no. I'm friends with all of them,” King told Tennis Channel.
“My dad was a firefighter so I kind of had a sense of unions and having one voice. I tried that with the men, and they said, are you kidding? Forget it. We're not doing anything with you. I said, Well it’s a big mistake, because if we're one union or one association, we'd have one voice for the whole sport. And it's not just what we could do on the court, it's what we could do off the court.”
The inaugural event in Houston, won by King’s long-time doubles partner Rosie Casals, was just the beginning of a monumental task. Yet, for the first time, these courageous women had far greater control of their destiny, one that would also open their eyes to the other side of tennis—the business end. Developing a range of skills in areas like marketing and media relations, the players grew to empower themselves. King downplays her role as the group’s spokesperson, though her fellow groundbreakers agree the vision and success in getting off the ground wouldn’t have been possible without her indispensable efforts.
“She was the perfect choice to be our leader. She has always spoken so well, she has always been for women’s rights,” said Peaches Bartkowicz.
Chimed in Casals, “She’s the leader. We agreed on things, we disagreed on things, but we always came together when it really mattered.”
Every player was responsible for putting in time off the court. But as Valerie Ziegenfuss points out, the balancing act King was able to strike between her on-court performances and grassroots responsibilities speaks immensely to her commitment and capability as a leader.
“I got to hand it to her. All the outside activities we had to do, she was doing double, so the demands on her were tremendous,” said Ziegenfuss. “For the first year 1971, she was winning most of the tournaments, so you’re playing more, you’re doing more promotions and so at times she looked exhausted, but what a tremendous leader.
“We wouldn’t be here today without Billie Jean. She was able to look into the future.”
The future King and the Original 9 imagined was three-fold: any girl born in the world would a place to compete, no matter where she is from; women would be appreciated for their accomplishments, not just their looks; and most importantly, would be able to earn a living.
If recent history is anything to go by, today’s WTA players—who also have King to thank for founding the tour in 1973—embody everything these nine visionaries hoped for. Since 2010, women from 16 different nations have gone on to win major titles. When Ashleigh Barty triumphed at the 2019 WTA Finals Shenzhen, her payout of $4.42 million was the largest single paycheck for any tennis player, woman or man. At the end of last year, Serena Williams was named the Female Athlete of the Decade by the Associated Press. And in the most recent annual Forbes release of the highest-paid female athletes, WTA players held the Top 9 spots, anchored by 2020 US Open champion Naomi Osaka.
King has used her platform for positive change beyond the tennis courts, living by the simple notion to “go for it.” That is exactly what the future Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and her fellow pioneers did when stepping in front of the cameras holding up $1 bills on September 23, 1970, empowering themselves to bring about change on their terms. The decision was high-risk, but its end reward, fulfillment, is a priceless prize that still sticks with King today.
“It’s like a match. Sports are great, you walk out and play every day, you don't know if you're gonna win or lose, but it's the process,” she said. “You want to get in the process, and you have this goal. And you just go for it. It's really fun. I've always loved that.”