No one was allowed to leave the room until everyone inside changed women’s tennis forever.
One of the tallest players stood guard at the door as 60 female players gathered inside, the expectation that “something big” was about to happen.
The consequences of that meeting at the Gloucester Hotel in London 50 years ago, which led to the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), are everywhere to be seen today.
In the past decade, only four women have ranked in the top 50 on the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes. They were all tennis players.
It is a far cry from where the women were on June 21, 1973, when, led by Billie Jean King, they gathered just before Wimbledon to unite groups of players from rival tournaments into a single organization that eventually became the first truly global women’s sports. trip.
“It was a defining moment in women’s tennis,” another of the protagonists, Rosie Casals – King’s doubles partner and fellow member of the ‘Original Nine’ who formed a breakaway tour in 1970 – told BBC Sport.
But it is one, she feels, that today’s generation may sometimes not fully understand.
“We show them the movies and the videos and Billie Jean up there fighting. But they really need to understand that — not just look at it, but understand that they’ve had the greatest ride in the world,” the nine-time American Grand Grand Prix. Slam women’s doubles champion said.
“There is no other women’s sport that is as successful and justified as these women have been.
“It’s not just turning up to play tennis and pick up the check. They don’t even pick up the check, that check goes to their agents, I don’t think they’ve ever put their hands on a check.
“I would like to see them give more back to the sport and help the sponsors and promoters when they are needed to stand up for something.
“I know things are easier and it’s different times in a different game. It’s like your parents trying to tell you about the Depression. You know what? They’re probably sitting in the best place ever.”
‘Most of the time you talk to their agent’
The creation of the WTA did not just happen during the few hours in the conference room.
Casals said she and the others had spent the previous year talking to players on the rival tour – the likes of Britain’s Virginia Wade and Australia’s Margaret Court – to persuade them of the benefits of teaming up, using the evidence of their breaking out the Virginia Slims circuit to illustrate that it would be a worthwhile move.
The ‘Original Nine’ had taken a risk in 1970 by forming their own women’s circuit, which resulted in them being banned from Grand Slams, and signed a token $1 contract, which then paid off as they began to earn good money and play in big arenas.
That success was born from the close relationship the players had with sponsors and their tour, and it is this that Casals feels is lacking among today’s players.
“Without them [sponsors and promoters] there are no tournaments and they all take risks,” said the 74-year-old. “I feel the women need to continue to establish themselves, yes, but also give more.
“It’s easy to take it for granted. I’m not saying they’re all blasé about it and I’m sure the WTA is talking to them about what’s important and what they need … but most of the time you are talking to their agent.
“There is not enough closeness or relationship.”
‘There would be no women’s competition without the WTA’
Casals said King told Dutch player Betty Stove to “make sure she guards that door and not let anyone out until we form the association”.
By the time the players left the London hotel, they had installed King as president of their new organization, and her quest for equality took off, including the pursuit of equal prize money for women at the Grand Slams.
“In my lifetime, it could have been the most exciting year of my life,” King told the Today program’s Karthi Gnanasegaram. “It was such a joyous moment that we know we were really together.
“We are the example [for other women’s sports]. We showed them we could do it. If you can see it, you can be it.”
The US Open became the first of the four Grand Slam tournaments to pay equal prize money to men and women in 1973, with Wimbledon the last in 2007.
Former British number one Laura Robson says the women’s game would not have survived without the formation of the WTA.
“The Original Nine who started it have given all of us a chance to even have a job in the first place, a chance to work and make money doing what we love – and that’s playing tennis,” said she for BBC Sport.
“There would be no women’s game without the WTA.
“You listen to Billie Jean King and the idea is always to keep pushing. We’re all aware of the areas that can continue to improve and get better and I’m sure the WTA is looking at the next 50 years and the next big plan because the game is growing all the time.”
In an open letter to the Original Nine to mark their 50th anniversary in 2020, 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu wrote: “I’d like to think that maybe other women along the way would have done the same, but the point is, you took the biggest leap , you did it first and your generation has inspired mine to continue to fight and strive for change.”