A closed-door meeting in London 40 years ago helped put Serena Williams where she is today, among the millionaires of tennis.
Billie Jean King gathered 61 other women in a room at the Gloucester Hotel in June 1973 and told one of them, 6-foot-tall Betty Stove, to lock the door and let no one out until the Women’s Tennis Association was formed.
A few weeks later, King got 3,000 pounds for winning Wimbledon, while men’s champion Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia received 67 percent more. At this year’s tournament, beginning today at the All England Club, the men’s and women’s singles champions each get 1.6 million pounds ($2.5 million), as tennis stands alone among professional sports in giving both sexes equal pay and billing at its biggest events.
“We owe our complete professional career to Billie Jean King,” Williams, the top prize money earner in women’s tennis with $46 million, said in an interview at the Rome Masters last month.
Williams, the defending champion and women’s No. 1 seed from the U.S., will join 19 other former top-ranked WTA players including Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati at Wimbledon this June 30 to celebrate the tour’s 40th anniversary.
Williams and Russia’s Maria Sharapova, who is the world’s best-paid female athlete with annual on- and off-court earnings of $28 million, are “living our dream,” King said in an interview in London last week.
“I always knew tennis was going to be my platform to get the word out and change society,” King, 69, said in an interview. “We benefited, but it wasn’t really as much about us as it was for future generations.”
King, from the U.S., made $2 million in prize money in a 16-year career, winning 39 major singles and doubles titles.
“We’ve got Billie, and that is a huge competitive advantage,” Stacey Allaster, chairman and chief executive officer of the WTA, said in an interview. “And we have a sport that is played every year, with major events to bring it to the spotlight. We get to keep women’s tennis in the mindset of consumers annually.”
When tennis turned professional in 1968 and players were allowed to compete for prize money, some tournaments dropped the women’s event, or paid women as little as a 12th of what male players received. That led to King and eight other players -- dubbed the ‘Original Nine’ -- signing $1 contracts in 1970 to compete in the Virginia Slims Series.
The tennis establishment response was swift and direct. Two Australian players, Judy Dalton and Kerry Melville, were suspended, while what was then called the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association set up a rival tour. The Gloucester Hotel meeting united the Original Nine with players including Chris Evert and Virginia Wade, who had been competing on the rival tour.
Prior to the WTA, annual prize money for women was close to $2 million. It’s now $118 million on a global tour with 54 events in 33 countries and the four majors.
“Now we have an opportunity to make millions and millions and millions of dollars, and there is just no other women’s sport that makes even anywhere close to what we are making,” said Williams, a five-time Wimbledon singles champion.
Four months after forming the WTA, King played Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes,” a tennis exhibition match at the Houston Astrodome.
In May 1973, Riggs had unnerved Margaret Court with a series of slow balls and angled shots, but his attempts to intimidate King in front of a crowd of 30,000 and a record 50 million global television audience fell flat. King, who was carried into the Houston Astrodome on a gilded chariot, beat the then 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion in straight sets. A year later, the WTA signed its first television contract.
In a documentary called “The Battle of the Sexes,” due to premier in the U.K. on June 26, Riggs says he wanted to prove “that women are lousy, they stink, they don’t belong on the same court as a man,” and that they were only good for “bed and kitchen.”
The pressure was on King to win.
“That wasn’t a tennis match,” Allaster said. “That was a match she was playing for all women at a very critical time for the women’s movement.”
King said beating Riggs was important for the sport and society.
“It’s important to be inclusive for both genders,” she said. “But it was also crucial for tennis. I did not want to give anybody, whether that be the media or the people in the sport, any light at all to try to demote us or to get us in a derogatory position because we really needed to keep building on what we had started.”
The U.S. Open offered equal prize money to men and women soon after the WTA was founded. The Australian Open made the change in 2001, and it took the French Open and Wimbledon until 2007 to follow suit.
Equal prize money in the sport’s four majors is occasionally still questioned -- always by men.
Last weekend, former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash of Australia wrote in Britain’s Sunday Times that “women must prove they merit equal prize money” by playing best-of-five-set matches in the majors like the men, rather than best-of-three.
King countered by calling for both sexes to play best-of-three, because it takes less toll on the players’ bodies, and said Cash and other critics should “think about their daughters.”
“It’s about the message, not the money,” King said. “The message says, when there is equal prize money in this world, then the men and women are together, trying to make the best of it for future generations. But some of the men, they want all the money.”