It’s been over half a century since Judy Dalton helped form the Original 9, a move which turned Dalton into a pioneer of sport across the globe.
The First Serve spoke exclusively to the tennis legend as she looked back on her marvellous career and reflected on what tennis means to her now.
Still sharp as ever, Dalton admits that despite her achievements to build the women’s game it often goes unnoticed still.
“Yes, they know who Billie (Billie Jean King) is because she lives in America and because she's so high profile there. But the other eight of us, I don't think they would know who we were,” Dalton told The First Serve.
At 85 years young, Dalton is certainly not slowing down and has come off the back of a nine-month travelling stint where she has followed the tour and been recognised by various clubs including the All England Club at Wimbledon.
For eight decades, Dalton has been on court or court side and her passion for tennis has never wavered.
Once a keen basketballer, Dalton made one of the biggest decisions of her life as a junior, selecting the pursuit of tennis over basketball, a decision which has formed and become a prominent part of her life.
“I started playing tennis when I was five because my father was a very good player in Ireland,” Dalton explained.
“Basketball people approached me and said, would I try out for the Australian team? And that was when I thought, oh no, I think I'd rather stay with tennis than do basketball.
“How lucky was I that I went back to tennis because I would never have had these opportunities and never have done what I did.”
Dalton burst onto the tennis scene during the late 1950s, an era that was dominated by Australian’s and is considered a golden age for the sport, but for women, this period was also one that came with immense challenges.
As Dalton reflected on this period, she explained that for women, opportunities were thin and hard to come by.
“It was very male orientated. The opportunities for women players were not there,” she said.
“It was very bleak, and the opportunities were certainly not there for the girls, and it was never likely to look as though it was ever going to change.
“Before 1968 of course there was no prize money whatsoever and it was all under the table payments and the men were getting so much more than the girls anyway.”
In September 1970, Dalton along with Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kerry Melville, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss formed the Original 9, breaking away from the traditional governing bodies and formed their own
When looking back at this period, Dalton has vivid memories of former tennis player turned promoter Jack Kramer dismissing calls from players for an increase in prize money from the existing pittance amounts on offer for women and this sparked a need for change and ultimately, began the process that led to the Virginia Slims Circuit.
Kramer ran the Pacific Southwest Open, a tournament which featured at the conclusion of the US Open with prizemoney of $12,000 to the men and just $1500 to the women.
“At the US Open, we put together this questionnaire and we had two of the girls who stood outside the gates and handed out these little questionnaires to all these people,” she said.
“When we went through it all, it was really surprising that about 42 or 43 percent of men said that they would rather watch women's tennis over men's because they could associate with it more.
“We thought that if we could get that many people coming, then we thought we would have pretty good success.”
As part of the breakaway tournament, tobacco sponsorships provided the funds required, but it didn’t come without controversy.
Joe Cullman, who was chief executive at Phillip Morris was the driver behind the sponsorship and he was a tennis fan who used the opportunity of cigarette sponsorship to appeal specifically to women during the 1970s.
Dalton, however, still remains comfortable with what occurred and has no regrets about the type of sponsorship used to support the movement.
“Nobody ever talked about cigarettes being bad and there was never any discussion whatsoever,” she said.
“It was an opportunity that in a sense was really meant to be because Philip Morris had just launched a cigarette called Virginia Slims.
“We happened to be really lucky that we got it because otherwise we would've been in strife, I think, of how we were going to be able to sponsor the tournament and sponsor the whole circuit.”
The pace at which women’s professional tennis developed was incredible, and by 1973 the Women’s Tennis Association was born with Billie Jean King as it’s inaugural president.
The foundations had been set by Dalton and her fellow competitors with their ambition driven by equality rather than money.
“It was really an opportunity for us to have to earn a living and to be acknowledged that we were part of the tennis world,” she said.
“We wanted to have opportunity and to be recognised that we could do something for our sport and for all sports really, not just for tennis.
“It wasn't that we wanted recognition for ourselves, we just wanted to have opportunities and to give opportunities for everybody else.
“What we achieved I think is unbelievable because we didn't just achieve it in tennis, but we achieved it in other sports. And I think for women in general.”
Dalton has maintained an enduring association with tennis despite a lack of embracement at times by officialdom.
She has filled various other roles since retiring as a player but perhaps the ultimate recognition came earlier this year when she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
With emotion in her voice, Dalton talked about the overwhelming sense of pride she felt as the crowd gathered to honour her in August.
“When I got up to speak, I couldn't say anything, just nothing would come out and it would've been maybe half a minute, to a minute before I could say anything. And then I started and became quite emotional,” she said.
“It was amazing. I was absolutely staggered that it would have such an effect. And it wasn't just me, it was everybody. So that was pretty special.”
Dalton has been a trailblazer for tennis and the service she has provided over many decades has resulted in extraordinary achievement and an indelible legacy.