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.
With the backing of Heldman’s mother Gladys, the publication 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 achievements, 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.”
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.
“It tells me that we made the right decision,” she said.
“We had to do what we did. It’s great to see what’s going on: the prize money, the fact that we made a great decision, because women’s tennis wouldn’t be where it is.”
For Pigeon, the decision to join the tour was a “total no-brainer”, while Ziegenfuss admits to experiencing a sense of “nervousness”.
Dalton looks back at what she and her fellow players did with tremendous satisfaction.
“I feel very proud. I think we did a fantastic job,” Dalton said.
“I don’t know whether we all really realize what an effect we had. We hoped that we would have a terrific effect, but I’m not sure we realized it would be as great as what it was.”