Billie Jean King and the WTA: How it all Began

Billie Jean King and the WTA
Photo Credit: Lynn Gilbert

During the pandemic, it has been discussed among top players and institutions alike whether a merger of the ATP and the WTA was the next step for professional tennis. Perhaps to understand the question better, it is interesting to take a look at the beginning of one of these unions: the WTA, and at how Billie Jean King spearheaded a movement for equality in tennis.

Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs, a meaningful match

In their 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris told the story of the much-anticipated match between 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, which took place in Houston in 1973.

In itself, the head-to-head was much more symbolic than it was a tennis demonstration – an exhibition match, it was disputed between two seemingly opposite figures of the game: Riggs, the self-proclaimed macho man who stated that despite his ageing body, he could beat just about any woman on the tour, versus King, who felt that the tennis world was deeply unjust for women, with much lower prize money and constant jabs at the inadequacy of female athletes when it came to handling pressure.

The match was won in straight sets by King, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The winner-take-all prize amounted to $100,000, which King pocketed, along with a heightened sense of pride in women’s tennis, and a strengthened determination to make things right.

King herself realized the reach that the encounter could have, at a pivotal moment in women’s tennis. She later commented:

“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

She wasn’t alone in this: the sheer number of spectators at the match – a record 30, 472 – showed that the audience was at least curious about the questions raised by the event, if not already sold on the concept of equality between the tours.

Billie Jean King, a Born Leader

The movement that King spearheaded benefitted from having a very popular and highly successful tennis player at the helm.

In 1971, before the WTA was officially founded, she played her best year: playing a total of 31 singles tournaments, she could boast of an extraordinary 112-13 winning record.

However successful and popular, King was already voicing a strong disagreement towards the way things were done in Tennis. Some of it had to do with the overall treatment of players in the United States, as regulated by the USLTA (United States Lawn Tennis Association).

Until 1968, tennis was in the pre-Open era: the major events, including Slams, were reserved for amateur players, who were booked and represented by agents. They made money playing these events, while professional tennis players could not make a living off their game.

Also Read:

The Pre-Open Era: Amateurs and Pros

This caused players like Billie Jean King to expose what she called “shamateurism” and denounce the practices of paying amateurs hefty sums under the table to guarantee their entry in the big tournaments.

Arguing against this corrupt practice, she also made the point that this separation between the amateur and professional games heightened the elitist aspect of tennis.

As early as 1967, she commented that:

“In America, tennis players are not people. If you are in tennis, you’re a cross between a panhandler and a visiting in-law. You’re not respected, you’re tolerated. In England, you’re respected as an artist. In Europe, you’re a person of importance. […] I’d like to see tennis get out of its ‘sissy’ image and see some guy yell ‘Hit it, ya bum!’ and see it be a game you don’t have to have a lorgnette or a sash across your tuxedo to get in to watch.”

In 1968, the beginning of the Open Era, where pro players were allowed to play the Slams, put this complaint to bed.

However, a portion of her statement remained relevant for quite a few years after that – for instance with the arrival of the Williams sisters on the circuit. The color of their skin, their modest origin and their style of play prompted many to feel that they were not really part of the game, but merely gatecrashers of the institution, still overwhelmingly posh, and white.

Prize Money and Inequality on the Tour

The Open Era answered one of King’s qualms. However, regarding the money, things were still bad.

When she won the French Open in 1972, she pocketed 15 000$ less than the men’s champion Ilie Nastase. This prompted her to say she wouldn’t play the following year if the women’s prize money didn’t match the men’s, starting de facto a pressure campaign on the tour to be granted equal rights and remuneration on the tour.

Virginia Slims and the WTA: How it Began

The fact is, there wasn’t even a proper tour for female tennis players at the time. There were Grand Slams, there were combined event; but there was no united front. The men’s circuit was also dealing with the issue, the ATP being founded in 1972.

King was already a respected tennis player at the time, having completed a career Grand Slam the year before, at the 1972 French Open. She was the fifth woman in history to do so. She was going to capitalize on this in order to make a change.

In 1973, she became the first President of the women’s players union, which would later be known as the WTA, the Women’s Tennis Association. The famous Nine – a group of nine female players who joined King’s cause for equality in tennis – started a series of tournaments to be played by women only, in order to regroup events and make a cohesive circuit.

For lack of sufficient funding and because of many unconvinced voices in tennis, the formula wasn’t immediately successful.

For about three years, there were effectively two parallel tours for women’s tennis. The sponsorship of Virginia Slim and Gladys Heldman’s (an influential tennis player and the founder of World Tennis magazine) backing didn’t suffice in bringing everyone together, and USLTA suspensions didn’t help.

The WTA: a Durable Organization

Against many odds, the WTA gained enough momentum through the movement of the Nine, and increasing enthusiasm in women’s tennis to become a rock-solid institution by 1973. The Association was born out of a room at the Gloucester Hotel in London that year, the week before Wimbledon.

Soon after that, the US Open offered equal prize money to men and women for the first time ever. Then, King beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets, further proving her point. Things were in motion that could not be stopped.

The story becomes more familiar in the years that followed: Chris Evert became the fist N°1 in the WTA rankings on November 3, 1975, when the inaugural computerized ranking era began on the WTA tour.

Sponsorship, which had been few and far between at the beginning, came crowding in, and by 1980, more than 250 women all over the world were playing professionally across 47 events, offering a total of 7.2 million dollars in prize money.

The Future of the WTA

However successful the WTA circuit has been, comments are still made regarding the different treatment of men and women in tennis, mostly leading to a lack of unity in tennis, which could be combatted following the motto: we are stronger together.

With the Covid-19 pandemic putting a halt on all tennis, the idea of a joint union between the ATP and the WTA has been put at the forefront of discussion by top players on the men’s and women’s tour alike: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Johanna Konta and Simona Halep, among others, have voiced their support for the idea.

It will be interesting to see what happens when tennis starts again – whether the unions can merge, and whether the decision-making institutions want to see it happen, are still question marks.

Claire Le Gouriellec
About Claire Le Gouriellec 8 Articles
Claire is a Radio host and English teacher based in Paris. Her passion for tennis is fueled by Federer’s record-breaking career, Ostapenko’s surprise win at the 2017 French Open, Tsitsipas’s philosophical press conferences, and Kenin’s refreshing self-confidence. From historical trivia to gripping match-ups, she revels in what made tennis great yesterday, and what will make it great tomorrow.

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