For those at the apex of the sport, tennis can be a game of riches.
Nowadays, top players can expect to make millions of dollars per season – and that’s before we consider the real money in it all – appearance fees (which are distinct from prize money per se) and endorsements.
By way of example, for the 12 months ending 31 May 2021, Naomi Osaka was the highest-paid female athlete in the world earning USD $55.2m with just over 90% of that total coming from endorsements.
Similarly, when Australian Ash Barty won the 2019 end of season WTA finals in Shenzhen, China, she collected what remains the biggest cheque in tennis history for AUD $6.4m which brought her yearly prize money total to an unprecedented – in men’s and women’s tennis - $16.37m.
But it wasn’t always this way.
When men’s tennis turned professional in 1968, women’s tennis remained strictly for amateurs. As a result, there was a growing disparity in both playing opportunities and prize money between men’s and women’s tennis.
For example, the disparity in prize money had grown from 2.5:1 in 1968 to 8:1 and even 12:1 in 1970. Further, the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) did not organise a single event for women in 1970.
Enter; a group of rebels.
Frustrated with the trajectory of women’s tennis and increasing inequality on tour, nine rogue female players decided to risk everything and take a stand.
On 23 September 1970, American’s Billie Jean King, Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Valerie Ziegenfuss, and Australians Judy Tegart Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid signed professional contracts with the renowned promoter and public relations expert (and mother of Julie Heldman) Gladys Heldman for $1 each.
Despite being faced with expulsion from the women’s amateur tour – which included losing all ranking points and being ineligible to play any of the four grand slams or Fed Cup – these women, dubbed the ‘Original 9’, started a revolution.
Together with their star promoter, the Original 9 formed their own tour of eight professional tournaments in 1970 which was, with the help of a major tobacco sponsor, named the ‘Virginia Slims Circuit’ (Circuit).
Their first move was to abandon the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles after tournament organiser Jack Kramer – a man who was ironically instrumental in the professional revolution of men’s tennis throughout the 1950s and 1960s – refused to reduce the 8:1 pay gap between men and women at his tournament.
As a result, the Circuit’s first event was held at the Houston Racquet Club with American Rosemary Casals defeating Australian Judy Tegart Dalton in the final.
By the time 1971 arrived, the Circuit had grown from the Original 9 to a group of approximately 40 players which provided enough competition for the Circuit to host 21 tournaments for the year.
Women’s tennis was suddenly an international entertainment spectacle with sponsors-interest and publicity growing exponentially.
Such was the growth of the Circuit, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was formed in 1973 and the Circuit absorbed the amateur tour to create what we know today as the WTA Tour.
Without the Original 9, tennis would not be theglobalised product we all see and enjoy today.
Thanks to their defiance and rebellion, (although acknowledging that in some sections of the game more could be done) women now earn equal prize money at grand slams and are able to enjoy a fully-fledged professional career – exactly as they should.
For their efforts, last year, on the 50th anniversary of their historic stand, the Original 9 were inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Speaking to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Billie Jean King said: “In a time where defying the odds and having a voice is more important than ever, it’s extremely rewarding to see the impact the Original 9 made 50 years ago can still be felt around the world today. There were three things we wanted for future generations. First, that they would have a place to compete. Second, that they would be recognized for their accomplishments, not just their looks. And, finally, that they could make a living playing professional tennis. Today’s players are living our dream.”
It is therefore fitting, that 51 years after signing their famous $1 contracts, the newly crowned US Open champion Emma Raducanu was presented with the champions trophy by the Original 9’s famous spearhead, Billie Jean King.
It was a beautiful and symbolic image showcasing precisely how far tennis has come, and the importance of why the Original 9 had to do what they did; no matter the cost.
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