Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) -- All it took was $1 for Billie Jean King to change tennis.
King earned 750 pounds ($1,175) for winning the 1968 Wimbledon title, less than half of what men’s champion Rod Laver received. That and a lack of playing opportunities for women spurred her to become one of nine players to start a new women’s tour, signing $1 contracts that led to the establishment of the inaugural $7,500 Virginia Slims of Houston 40 years ago today.
The Virginia Slims Circuit debuted the following year with 19 tournaments and total prize money of $309,100. Since then, the WTA Tour has grown into the world’s leading sport for women, with 53 tournaments held across the world over 11 months, more than 2,200 players and more than $86 million in prize money. This year, top-ranked Serena Williams got 1 million pounds for winning Wimbledon, the same as men’s champion Rafael Nadal.
“We had a pretty clear vision of what we wanted for our sport,” King, 66, said in a telephone interview from Prescott, Arizona. “I always tell the women today: ‘You are living our dream, our vision that we talked about in 1970.’”
The tour featured King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman.
‘Owned by Men’
When tennis turned professional in 1968 and players were allowed to compete for prize money, “all the tournaments were run by men or owned by men,” King said.
“A lot of them dropped the women’s event and just didn’t have them,” she said. “Or, if they did have them, the ratio of prize money was like 11 or 12-to-one even though we were playing in front of full crowds. It got me a little crazy. My former husband Larry said: ‘Why don’t you all get together?’”
Larry King, one of the four co-founders of World Team Tennis in 1973, and Billie Jean King divorced in 1987.
King, Casals and Richey approached World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman, who got Philip Morris International Inc.’s Virginia Slims cigarette brand on board. The cigarettes were introduced in 1968 with marketing aimed at young professional women.
Today’s players say they’re aware of their debts to the nine women.
I’m “humbled by what these nine women have done for my career,” former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova said in a statement e-mailed by her agent. “I am personally grateful for their vision and their ‘fight’ for all the generations that followed them.”
‘Owe a Lot’
Sharapova, 23, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, earns $24.5 million in prize money and endorsements a year, according to an estimate by Forbes Magazine in August. That figure was confirmed by Sharapova’s agent, Max Eisenbud, at IMG.
“We are fortunate to be in the position we are in today, with the same prize money as the guys at combined events, and we owe a lot of that to what these women did 40 years ago,” former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic said in a statement on the WTA Tour website.
Setting up a professional women’s tennis tour against the wishes of what was then called the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, or USLTA, wasn’t easy.
“Jeopardizing the chance to play Grand Slams was probably the riskiest part of going against the old establishment,” Casals, 62, said in an e-mail. “We were really second-class citizens when we played at tournaments alongside the men, and that meant all tournaments.”
King missed out on a chance to complete the Grand Slam of all four majors in one calendar year in 1972. She won the French Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon but couldn’t play the Australian Open because of a Virginia Slims tournament in San Francisco.
Australians Dalton and Melville were suspended the day after they signed the $1 contract, while the USLTA set up a rival tour with Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Virginia Wade.
King assigned each of the so-called Original 9 to try to influence two players on the USLTA tour. The strategy worked. The tours were united in the Women’s Tennis Association, formed during a player meeting at the Gloucester Hotel in London, shortly before Wimbledon in 1973. King was elected president.
The U.S. Open offered equal prize money to men and women in the same year. Wimbledon was the last Grand Slam event to follow suit, in 2007.
“Women’s tennis owes everything to Billie Jean King,” Fernando Soler, head of the tennis division at IMG Worldwide Inc., said in an interview from Barcelona, Spain. “If it wouldn’t have been for her determination to put together the tour, I don’t think women’s tennis would exist today.”
King also played Bobby Riggs in 1973, in what was called the “Battle of the Sexes.” King, the winner of 39 major singles and doubles titles, beat the former Wimbledon champion from the U.S. in straight sets. About 40 million people around the world watched the broadcast, which led to the WTA’s first television contract the next year.
“The symbolism of that win for women meant so much,” Stacey Allaster, chief executive officer of the WTA Tour, said in a telephone interview from WTA headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Billie wants equal opportunity for men and women to work respectfully together for a better world. And that tennis match symbolized what she wanted to achieve.”
King said she regrets not having been able to set up a joint tour for men and women. Several attempts to join the two were turned down by the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals, she said. Although the WTA Tour and ATP World Tour will hold 20 combined events next year, they remain separate entities.
The men’s tour declined to comment.
“It’s a better package when the men and women are together,” King said. “Just imagine if we had done this 40 years ago.”
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