Raise your hand if you have never heard of Billie Jean King? No one? Everyone knows who she is? I thought that was the case. Now let’s talk about the other eight women who, with King, changed women’s tennis forever. If you can name them or what they did without Googling it you win a prize because I didn’t know. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable when it comes to sports; fluent and obsessed with some and conversant in others. I was embarrassed to learn that had never heard of the “Original 9” or what they did in any detail. Thankfully, this year these women were honored and I was educated.
Two out tennis legends, Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals, were honored last week alongside seven other women who changed tennis: Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman. In 1970, two years before Title IX and three before King took on Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” the “Original 9” signed contracts, for one dollar, with the publisher of World Tennis magazine and agreed to start a series of women’s professional tennis tournaments.
Billie Jean King, Ana Ivanovic of Serbia and Rosie Casals (Getty)
The nine women were protesting pay disparities in which women were often paid ten times less than their male counterparts at a given tournament. For example, in 1970 King received $600 for winning the Italian Open while the men’s champion received $3,500. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour was formed in 1973 over the objections of the tennis establishment that threatened to bar these women from the major championships if they broke away from the US Tennis Association (USTA).
The Family Circle Cup, which honored these women last week, offered $100,000 in prize money for its first women’s tournament in 1972. Rosie Casals won that first tournament and the insane, at the time, sum of $30,000 (by comparison this year’s champion, Serena Williams, took home $115,000). The gamble these women made in 1970 paid off for them and for the future of women’s tennis. Their legacy has been taken up by the next generation of tennis players. Venus Williams, inspired by King, was instrumental in convincing the organizers of Wimbledon, who were the last hold outs of the major championships, to give equal prize money to men and women. Now, all of the major tennis championships boast equal prize money for men and women.
Julie Heldman, Nancy Richey, Doris Hart (non-playing captain), Mary Ann Curtis, Billie-Jean King and Peaches Bartkowicz
With the 40th anniversary of Title IX and the 40th anniversary of the Family Circle Cup this year has already been an opportunity for me to explore the history or women’s sports and bring into focus that which had been smudged by time. As I read more about the women (and men) who changed sports for the lucky ones who came after, the picture moves closer, the edges become sharper, and I pick up important features I missed. Sure, I knew of Billie Jean King and much of what she did for women’s sports and equality over the years but I was woefully uninformed about the other people who helped her make those changes.
As King and Casals stated in the interview they gave last week, as the frontiers of women’s sports expand, sports help to bring people together the same way that music and art do, and that sports can bridge gaps of language, culture, and beliefs. The “Original 9” used their sport to come together to make a courageous and spectacular change for all girls and women who play sports. We’re all lucky, whether we play sports or not, that they did.
Did you know who the “Original 9” were? What do you think are the next frontiers for female athletes?