Forty years ago this week, nine women, fed up with the inequality in treatment and prize money offered to female tennis players by the USTA (then known as the USLTA) and other tournament organizing bodies, bailed on the USTA and signed $1 contracts to form what would eventually become the WTA, currently the largest and most successful professional women's sports organization in the world. They were suspended by the USTA, a rival circuit was started in an attempt to squash them, and they were branded a bunch of "crazies".
Flash forward 40 years and the WTA is the world's leading professional sport for women with over 2,200 players representing 96 nations competing for over $86 million in prize money at 53 events and four Grand Slams in 33 countries. Just last week, Kim Clijsters took home $2.2 million in prize money.
How do you like dem apples?
The first stop on the newly formed Virginia Slims tour (which would eventually become the WTA in 1973) was Stanford. Billie Jean was at the Stanford tournament in July and did a short press conference. It was absolutely awesome to be able to sit and listen to her talk about the formation of the tour and what it must have been like back in the early 70s, to risk your career and your on-court legacy, to stand up for yourself and forge what would become an incomparable legacy not only as a champion of women in sport, but of women's rights in general:
Some choice quotes:
You have to remember in 71, a lot of people weren't real happy with us when we started. A lot of players were afraid to join us. And we had two tours, two circuits, because the USTA started one against us which was very difficult at the time. I wanted everyone to be together. That was the whole intention when we started. We lost $3000 the first year. I guess that's where my prize money went. So I made zero or minus money that year. But we were very excited and very scared and we weren't sure what was going to happen to us. But it was the first tournament of the Virginia Slims series in 71.
All we wanted to do was to get professional tennis going, we weren't worried about winning majors. In fact, I must say, the tour was probably more important to us than the majors at that period of our lives. But we knew that we were taking tennis to the people and you could think about the kids who were going to come watch and could dream about playing the tournament and then going on to the majors. We knew eventually we wanted it to be international, but we had to start someplace and the opportunity was in the United States.
This was for me personally, if I had to weigh them at the time it was more important to me than just winning matches. Because I always think about things that are lasting and not just temporary. When you perform it's very temporary. When you win you get a trophy. But this is lasting. This could be passed down to future generations. And I thought that was much more important, that we could make a better life for more people this way.
When people ask me about the 70s and they ask me what's the one word that comes mind, I go "tired". I was going on about 4 hours of sleep a night. We had a lot of meetings in 71 and 72 to try and get the WTA started. A lot of things were happening. And a lot of people were happy with us, a lot of people were unhappy with us. The media was being tough, they labeled us as "crazy" because we were women. I used to say "if I were Jimmy Connors doing this you'd just say he's just trying to create opportunities as a business guy." No one ever perceives me as a business person. It's very interesting. Yet if I were a guy, they would. It's just all these things you have to deal with. But it's fun.
I wanted to start matching up the hearts and minds of people with Title IX. That was 72 and I played Bobby in 73. And tennis exploded after we played, participation wise. It became the 8th most popular sport in the country. And, the men's tour by the way, which people always forget about, got their first big television contract and the women's tour got their first big contract, in 1974 and that's because of that match. So that was a great springboard to helping our sport not only here but worldwide. People have no idea. The men never talk about it because they don't like to. It really helped the men's tour a lot, the tennis went way up and women's tennis went way up right after that match. So I'm glad I played him. I didn't want to play him. He followed me around for three years and then he beat Margaret Court so then I had to play him. So I always thanked him. Men who are in their 40s and 50s now come up to me and tell me that match changed their whole philosophy, the way they brought up their daughters.
Muchos gracias to Billie and the OG9. Without them, what ever would I spend my time snarking about?