By Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Billie Jean King and eight other women of the “Original 9” are celebrating the 50th anniversary of signing $1 contracts and breaking away from the U.S. tennis establishment to form the Virginia Slims circuit in 1970. It helped launch the WTA Tour, which now offers millions in global prize money.
Promoters were offering fewer tournaments and substantially less prize money for the women. They were galvanized when former player and promoter Jack Kramer announced the Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles would pay $12,500 to the men’s champion and $1,500 to the women’s champion.
So they signed with promoter Gladys Heldman to play a tournament in Houston on Sept. 23, 1970, despite a threat from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA) to ban them from Grand Slam events and international competition.
The Original 9 will gather by Zoom to celebrate the inaugural Virginia Slims event. The WTA Tour they helped create offered 55 events in 29 countries and a total of $179 million in prize money in 2019.
This week, the Original 9 were nominated for induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The women received diamond pins from the WTA, which will hand out a Courage Award in their honor.
Here’s a look at the women who, in their 20s, took a stand against inequality in their sport.
The youngest of the nine, a 20-year-old Pigeon attended Mills College and later transferred to UC Berkeley. She “loved being a rebel” and had “no reservations” moving ahead with the plan despite the consequences.
Heldman asked her to write a letter to Philip Morris CEO Joe Cullman in New York to request sponsorship because “she had confidence that I could accurately state our cause and attract his interest.”
She spelled out the inequities among the men’s and women’s tournaments, saying the women’s matches were just as entertaining and deserving of equal prize money. Pigeon suggested the company would benefit from advertising with the nascent women’s tennis circuit, ending the letter with “Joe, show us some dough!”
She called Heldman a “brilliant and progressive” tennis innovator who wanted the women to succeed. The leader of the pack, “Billie was a bulldog” and facilitated discussion groups with the women on how to proceed.
Pigeon won the Junior Wimbledon title in 1968, which started a four-tournament winning streak. It included the Welsh Open Women’s Championship, the U.S. Eastern Women’s Grass Court Championship and the U.S. Girls Championship.
“People don’t know how trying it was to be a teenage female athlete with little or no approval from the male sex during the late 60’s, including one’s father,” Pigeon said. “What works is proving through ability and demonstration that women, on the scale of things, are equal to men in contributing to society.”
After earning a graduate degree in biology, Pigeon started Sagebrush Equine Training Center for the Handicapped in Sun Valley, Idaho. Her current passions include Nordic skiing and working on wildlife restoration projects
A 21-year-old Ziegenfuss attended San Diego State College and consulted with her father, George, about joining the Virginia Slims circuit. He was her first tennis coach and the men’s basketball coach there.
“I said, ‘What about this? It means not going back to college.’ He said, ‘Valerie you love tennis, so do it. You can always go to college.’”
That encouragement and support was lacking from the U.S. tennis leadership.
“Tennis was run by men, the good ’ol boys club,” Ziegenfuss said. “Our tennis tour was dominated by male promoters who didn’t really believe in women’s tennis.”
That quickly changed under Heldman and the deep pockets of tobacco giant Philip Morris. The first full season in 1971 featured 19 tournaments in various cities across the U.S. and $309,000 in total prize money.
“Virginia Slims spent as much money on marketing as they did on prize money,” Ziegenfuss said.
She called it “perfect timing” when tobacco ads were banned on TV in 1971, making a budget available for Philip Morris to sponsor the women’s tennis circuit. It used the Virginia Slims slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
Philip Morris already had experience promoting tennis, when Marlboro sponsored the 1968 U.S. Open. Five weeks before a tournament, some players would arrive in the city and hold a press conference. Players gave away tickets at grocery stores and racquets at tournaments. There were tennis clinics with club members, cocktail parties and press obligations, usually featuring King.
“Billie Jean was a great leader, a wonderful player, she had vision,” Ziegenfuss said. “She was a giver, what an athlete, what a champion.”
Ziegenfuss, who was ranked No. 1 in doubles and won six titles, became a teaching pro and spent five years as a USTA national coach. Her daughter, Allison Bradshaw, played three years on the WTA Tour.
Jane ‘Peaches’ Bartkowicz
The 21-year-old Bartkowicz was a tennis prodigy. She won 17 junior titles between the ages of 11-18, including the 1964 girls singles at Wimbledon.
She earned her nickname on the public courts in Hamtramck, Michigan, where she honed her peachy shot against a wall. At 11, she won the 1960 U.S. Lawn Tennis Association singles and doubles titles in her age group.
Known for her two-fisted backhand, she defeated top players from 1968-70, including Virginia Wade, Rosie Casals, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Kerry Melville.
Bartkowicz won gold at the l968 Mexico City Olympics when tennis was a demonstration sport and had an undefeated record in helping the U.S. to victory at the Federation and Wightman Cups.
In 1970, she played 22 tournaments and 64 matches. Bartkowicz competed in fewer tournaments in 1971 before heading to school at Wayne State in Detroit.
She retired at 25 and became a tennis instructor. Bartkowicz, who had a bone marrow transplant a few years ago, says she’s impressed by the play of U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka.
A 22-year-old Casals won the first Virginia Slims Invitational at the Houston Racquet Club, defeating Judy Tegart Dalton of Australia 5-7, 6-1, 7-5 on Sept. 26, 1970.
A 5-foot-2 dynamo on the court, Casals “ran, jumped, bounced and twirled, hit side spin and top spin, low balls and high balls,” according to an AP story about the tournament.
Nicknamed “The General,” Casals helped King rally the women around the effort to start the Virginia Slims circuit and the WTA Tour in 1973.
Casals, whose parents were from El Salvador, grew up in San Francisco and played on the public courts of Golden Gate Park. As a teenager, she met Billie Jean Moffitt – a product of the Long Beach public parks – and they teamed for success in doubles.