Billie Jean King and the beginning of the WTA

As anticipation for the 1973 Wimbledon began to take hold, a group of more than 50 female tennis professionals gathered at the newly opened Millennium Gloucester Hotel in London. Among them, Australian star Lesley Hunt found herself captivated by the fiery determination of a trailblazing figure in Billie Jean King, whose indomitable spirit was redefining the landscape of women’s tennis.

“Meeting Billie Jean King changed my life,” said Hunt, a top 10 regular in the 1970s. “Here was a player with her own assertive style who clearly reveled in being on the court. She worked the ball and attacked the net with such flair. Not only that, she wanted to help other women showcase their talent. She was loud and opinionated, passionate about the game and wanting everyone to know how good we were at it.

“I loved that she referred to us as ‘female athletes’ to be admired and that she wanted us to expand our horizons. I could rave on, but suffice it to say, I had found a leader, I could admire.”

Hunt was not alone. At the ripe old age of 29, King’s charisma, intelligence and sheer willpower were more than enough to lure this group of players to a game-changing meeting on June 21, half a century ago.

It helped that the hotel was brand new and offers free rooms to players. For younger players used to being housed in private homes, this was a glamorous turn of events and an enticing glimpse of better things to come. That week a women’s tournament was being played at the nearby Queen’s Club, so the hotel was busy.

In practice, King’s choice of venue made it easy for the maximum number of players to attend her summit – for which the agenda was clear. Frustrated by the sexist attitudes of the sport’s establishment and turf wars that had resulted in competitive circuits and a divided talent pool, King was determined that the women would formally band together to take control of their destiny.

“In my mind, it was now or never,” King once said. “I wanted the men’s and women’s players to be together, but it wasn’t going to happen. As women, we were at a point in our history where we needed one strong, united voice.”

Undoubtedly, women’s professional tennis had blossomed since September 1970, when the original 9 renegades teamed up with World Tennis publisher and promoter Gladys Heldman in Houston and held up dollar bills to create an iconic image.

Despite looming threats of a ban from participating in major tournaments or representing their respective countries, the women’s decision sparked the formation of the Virginia Slims Circuit. Spanning nearly 20 American cities in 1971, this groundbreaking tour marked a significant milestone as King emerged as the first female athlete to earn a staggering $100,000 in a single season.

In 1972, prize money on the Slims Circuit increased by about 60 percent to $526,000 as King and her cohorts worked hard to build their fan base and attract additional sponsors. The season-ending Virginia Slims Championships, a precursor to today’s WTA Finals, became the first women’s tournament to offer $100,000. As a result of the zeitgeist of social change, they themselves made a unique contribution to the women’s movement.

Yet this success served to exacerbate strained politics within the sport, particularly the relationship between the formidable Heldman and a USLTA that now wanted a bigger piece of the action.

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Matters came to a head in the spring of 1973 when Heldman refused to pay the high tournament sanction fees demanded by the USLTA. The governing body responded by once again threatening to strip Heldman’s benefits of their official status – and by launching a rival tour featuring Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Virginia Wade and Olga Morozova.

For King, this was the final straw, and a few months later she found herself instructing 5-foot-11 Dutch player Betty Stöve to stand guard at the door to the room at Gloucester — to keep the players in and prying media out — – until her colleagues and comrades had agreed on a way forward.

King sat at a table at the front of the room with Rosie Casals – nicknamed The General – at her side. In the end, they emerged triumphant from the meeting, and King was elected president of the new Women’s Tennis Association. Wade was appointed vice president, Hunt assistant vice president, while Françoise Dürr and Ingrid Löfdahl Bentzer would share secretarial duties. Stöve was the designated treasurer.

“It felt like the meeting lasted forever, but it was probably a few hours,” Casals said. “The atmosphere was brilliant. I really believe that the women who showed up came for a reason. I think we all felt that we could achieve something.”

Momentum was enhanced by the fact that Larry King, Billie Jean’s husband at the time and a lawyer, arrived at the meeting armed with preparatory paperwork.

“We knew we had to be an association, not a union, because as athletes we were private contractors,” Billie Jean said. “Larry brought the expertise we needed in areas like bylaws so we could start organizing right away.”

In the absence of any corporate management or staff, around 20 players were appointed to committees that would focus on functional areas.

Each of these women assumed an integral role in the new organization: Casals took charge of player rankings, Karen Krantzcke headed tournament relations, Cecilia Martinez managed memberships, Hunt tackled disciplinary issues, while Stöve took the financial reins. In an effort to streamline communications, regional representatives were appointed, including Ann Jones and Löfdahl-Bentzer for Europe, Judy Dalton for Australia and Asia, and Patricia Bostrom representing the United States.

“As the resident hothead in the room, the newly elected board put me on the disciplinary committee,” Cynthia Doerner said. “They thought that by putting me in this particular role, I would become more responsible for my temperament on the field. It was a sobering experience.

“But the camaraderie between all the women in the room was fantastic. I was a 21-year-old Aussie who got swept up in the flow of events and loved the fact that we were creating something special. There was never a moment’s doubt in my mind about joining. It was inspiring and it gave me an opportunity to have a real career in professional women’s tennis.”

Not all active players were present at the meeting for various reasons. Some, especially those from the Soviet bloc countries, were held back by their federations. Others preferred to stay away from politics or felt a special loyalty to tennis’ historic administrators and feared reprisals. Many supported the venture wholeheartedly, but were simply not in town at the time.

But on July 3, King told the New York Times that Evert and Goolagong were among those who had pledged to join the new association, and within weeks the body was 64-women strong with players from 18 countries. This helped give King the bargaining power she needed to argue for equal prize money at the 1973 US Open, a Grand Slam first where deodorant brand Ban provided the extra funds to match the men’s purses.

Events at Gloucester are now a bit of a blur for Stöve, who jokingly says she was “too busy stopping people from leaving.”

But she adds, “I remember many other meetings that went into the early hours of the morning when we were trying to create rules and procedures.”

This, she notes, was along with playing without coaches, making their own travel arrangements and doing laundry.

What is certain is that the unity for which King had lobbied so fervently brought important victories in the months that followed. In 1974, the first full season of the WTA’s existence, the Virginia Slims events were sanctioned by the USLTA (albeit with Heldman bumped from the picture), and the two entities offered a circuit of 18 events across the United States that offered total prize money of just over 1 million dollars. Under separate jurisdiction, a further $900,000 was up for grabs at 23 international events, including the Grand Slam tournaments and the national championships in Italy, Germany and South Africa.

Finally freed to play wherever they chose without fear of repercussions, the women’s game began to attract unprecedented attention. To further the rapidly growing business, Jerry Diamond was brought on board as CEO. This period of expansion also saw a groundbreaking deal with CBS that led to the Virginia Slims tournament finals being broadcast in prime time in 1975.

If the rest is history, it remains extraordinary for King that she managed to capture the triple crown of singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon, two weeks after founding the WTA.

“I don’t know how I did it,” she said. “I think I was just relieved, but also so energized by what we had done. Titles and wins are great, but let me tell you, the two things I’m most proud of in tennis are standing with Original 9 in 1970 and the creation of the WTA in 1973.

“We have to keep moving forward, but we are still the leading global sport for women. I don’t think people talk about it enough.”

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