How Billie Jean King and the ‘Original Nine’ changed women’s tennis forever

It is 53 years since nine brave women decided it was time to take a stand in the male-dominated world of tennis.

In 1970, inequality was rife in the sport, which had only recently entered the Open era, highlighted by the fact male players earned far more than their female counterparts.

With Billie Jean King as a key figurehead, a group of female players – known as the ‘Original Nine’ – took the move of starting a women’s professional tour to challenge the establishment in the pursuit of equal rights in tennis.

King was joined by fellow Americans Rosie Casals, Peaches Bartkowicz, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss, as well as two Australians, Judy Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid.

Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King and Julie Heldman pictured in 1970.
Nancy Richey (left), Billie Jean King (centre) and Julie Heldman pictured in 1970.(Getty Images)

With the backing of Heldman’s mother Gladys, the publish of the influential World Tennis Magazine, the players famously signed $1 contracts and with sponsorship found, an initial tournament was held in Houston, Texas.

A tour evolved from that first event in Houston offering increased prize money, before the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was established in 1973, owing its origins to the nine trailblazing women.

It was not an easy journey for those who took the risk of starting their own tour.

Suspension from existing tournaments and prevailing sexist attitudes were among the many challenges they faced, but their hard work laid the foundations for the opportunities professional female players enjoy today.

‘Why we were there’

All but Heldman and Richey are in Melbourne this week attending the Australian Open.

King, who won 12 major singles titles during her legendary career, recalled what she and her fellow pioneers set out to do.

“There’s three things that we thought about with the ‘Original Nine’,” King said at Melbourne Park.

“That was that any girl in this world — if she were good enough — would have a place to compete. Not play, but compete.

“Number two, to be appreciated for our accomplishments, not only our looks. And number three — really important — to be able to make a living in tennis, the sport we had such a passion to play.

“That’s why we were there.”

Rosie Casals playing at the 1977 US Open.
Rosie Casals was among the group of trailblazing players in the early 1970s.(Gerty Images/Focus on Sport)

Casals, who beat Dalton in the final of the first tournament in Houston, feels immense pride when she reflects on what the WTA Tour has become.

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