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Julie Heldman Shares Her Thoughts On Her Mother Gladys Heldman • The Original 9 Inducted Into International Tennis Hall Of Fame

The Original 9. Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Peaches Bartkowicz and Valerie Ziegenfuss.

Being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame is the highest honor in tennis, and I’m thrilled that the ITHF is inducting the Original 9 in 2021.

Life has changed dramatically since 1970, when the Original 9 stood up against the men who were running international tennis. That year began without much hope for women’s tennis. While it was finally becoming possible for top-flight tennis players to win prize money openly, almost all the money was being siphoned off to the men players, and women players found themselves with very little indeed. The old schedule was falling apart, and the new schedule had very few tournaments for women pros. The turning point came when the Pacific Southwest, to be held in Los Angeles two weeks after the U.S. Open, announced a prize money of 8-to-1 in favor of the men players. That’s when three top women players, Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King, and Rosie Casals, sought help from my mother, Gladys Heldman, the editor and publisher of the unique World Tennis Magazine and a sensational promoter of tennis events.

Gladys Heldman talking to 10sBalls “Big Boss” at the 1993 ATP Awards Gala event held in Indian Wells California.

Within just a few weeks, she organized a tournament for the women pros in Houston. Along the way, she secured the necessary approvals from the U.S. Tennis Association, but the night before the players were due to arrive, the men in charge of tennis pulled a switcheroo, and threatened all the players that if they competed in Houston, they’d be banned from all the major tennis events going forward. Those officials began making up rules on the fly, hoping to undermine our event. Undaunted, my mother offered the players a way to circumvent the duplicitous officials. She suggested that the women sign up with her as “contract pros” for the princessly sum of $1, thus protecting both the players and the Racquet Club, where the tournament was being held. Before the tournament started, my mother pulled a rabbit out of her hat when she announced the tournament would be sponsored by the Virginia Slims cigarette brand, owned by one of the largest companies in the world. Still, the players were at risk that the officials would continue finding ways to ruin their tennis careers. But the 9 of us stood together, and in September 1970, we competed in the first—and highly successful—tournament on the women’s pro tour. The Original 9 were simultaneously brave and pragmatic, as we lacked any other options. So we threw ourselves into helping the tour succeed by playing our hearts out, by helping to promote the tour, by giving innumerable interviews, by teaching one or two tennis clinics per week, and by doing anything else to help the tour succeed.

And succeed we did, because we had our very own Holy Trinity: Gladys Heldman, our unsurpassed promoter; Billie Jean King, our charismatic star; and Virginia Slims, which funded and marketed the tour as only a Fortune 500 company could. All the other players on the tour had a sense of solidarity, of fighting together in the trenches, to build a world where we and future women pros could earn a living doing what we did best.

Photo by Julie Heldman via Facebook
Julie Heldman Photo by Julie Heldman via Facebook

I’m quite proud that fifty-one years later, the women’s pro tour is the richest women’s sport. We were there at its birth.