50 years of the '9 originals': When nine women overthrew the old macho tennis regime

50 years of the '9 originals': When nine women overthrew the old macho tennis regime

Led by Billie Jean King, they organized an alternative tournament: “Back then we were supposed to stay home.”

50 years of the '9 originals': When nine women overthrew the old macho tennis regime

“It was a very different time, a time where women were supposed to stay home, a time where it was institutionally well regarded that they did not receive the same remuneration as men for their work, a time that called for revolution.” At 74, Julie Heldman's voice still exudes belligerence and shows the power of wisdom that comes from a life full of challenges and setbacks.

She was one of the nine players who on September 23, 1970, exactly half a century ago this Wednesday, decided to stand up to the grievances suffered in front of men in the distribution of prizes for almost newborn professional tennis. The spark was lit when that summer the Pacific West tournament in Los Angeles awarded men a financial reward 12 times greater than what women would receive.

Billie Jean King , Rosie Casals and Nancy Richey had the idea to meet with my mother, Gladys , who was the editor of World Tennis Magazine and an influential person. Hence the project of organizing a women's tournament in Houston outside the United States Federation, “Heldman recalls in a telephone conversation from his home in the Los Angeles area.

“We had a lot to lose”

It was a risky decision, in which they exposed their careers, a head-on collision with Jack Kramer , the great promoter of professional tennis, an old-fashioned man who looked down on female tennis players. “Gladys was able to reach an agreement with Joe Cullman , CEO of Philip Morris, to launch the project. We had a lot to lose, but we were convinced that breaking with the old regime was the right decision, “explains Rosie Casals, 72, a 12-time winner of Grand Slam titles in the doubles specialty, seven of them together. to Billie Jean King.

This is how Virginia Slims was born, the embryo of what would be the WTA, the Women's Tennis Association, three years later. Ziegenfuss , King, Richey, Peaches , Bartkowicz , Dalton , Melville , Casals, Heldman and Pigeon (cited from left to right and from top to bottom, as they appear in the photograph) joined wills in a crucial movement to understand the evolution of this sport among women. His image carrying a dollar as the symbolic amount of the contract signed with Gladys Heldman before the start of that tournament is part of tennis history.

“There is no talk of a single leadership,” says Julie Heldman, winner of 22 titles. “My mother started the idea, Billie Jean King was the media star, great competitor and fabulous as public relations. Through Cullman we got funding for the cigarette brand. '

“The best possible script was written”

The threats frustrated, Kramer's resistance subdued, the tennis players laid the first stone in the Houston Racquet Club, but they still had to fight firmly against the cultural hegemony, which ignored them and hardly granted them a marginal role in a sport where the spectacle and money seemed to be the exclusive property of men. Three years later there was another episode of notable relevance in the consideration of women's tennis. Bobby Riggs , winner of the Wimbledon and the United States Open in 1939 and again a winner in New York two years later, decided to return to the slopes at 55 years old in an effort to ridicule the unstoppable tide unleashed by the original 9 .

The delirium of his gambling problem and his macho convictions led him to challenge Billie Jean King, who initially declined the bid. Margaret Court , then number 1 in the world, accepted it, who could only make him three games.

King reconsidered his decision, aware of the popular impact of that defeat. The battle of the sexes , recreated in a film of the same title starring Emma Stone , broke all audience records. On September 20, 1973, precisely in Houston, Billie Jean King beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3 and 6-3. “That game was of extraordinary importance. It put women's tennis on the map ”, points out Casals. “Thanks, paradoxically, to Riggs, the best possible script was written, also arousing the interest of people who are not fond of tennis. Billie needed to win that game. I think if I had lost it it would have represented a great step backwards for our adventure.

King, who would end her career with 39 Grand Slam titles, 12 of them in singles, also established herself as one of the great champions of gender equality at all levels. “The first thing we want is for any girl in the world, if she's good enough, to have a place to compete. The second, that women are recognized for their achievements, not just for their appearance. And finally, and most importantly, what we wanted for ourselves and for future generations was for them to be able to live professionally from tennis. That is why we take risks and cross the line in the sand when we sign our one dollar contracts, ”she recently stated in statements collected by the WTA.

The fight continues

On the 13th, Naomi Osaka received three million dollars as the winner of the United States Open, identical to that received by Dominic Thiem , who a day later won the men's title. Today, the four Grand Slam tournaments reward men and women in the same way. “They do not have on their shoulders the weight of facing those kinds of decisions that we had to make, but there are already voices that show involvement and leadership, such as Coco Gauff “, says Casals.

The emerging 16-year-old American tennis player participated in a video protesting George Floyd's death at the hands of the police: “I use my voice to fight racism. Do you use yours? ». Osaka herself went further, withdrawing from the Cincinnati Premier 5 semifinals in protest of racist violence. Before being an athlete I am a black woman. And as a black woman, I feel like there are much more important matters that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis, ”she wrote on Twitter.

There is a trace of the immense legacy of the 9 originals . “They can keep things happening”, concludes Casals.

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