Billie Jean King has revealed how her efforts to form the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) were “really scary”, adding that she now believes tennis’ modern-day stars are “living our dream”.
June will mark half a century since King gathered more than 60 women together at the Gloucester Hotel in London to form the WTA.
The seeds had been sown three years earlier when, angry at being treated like second-class citizens in tennis’ fledgling professional era, nine women branched out on their own.
King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman – known as the Original Nine – all signed symbolic $1 contracts to compete in a new tour, the Virginia Slims Series.
That evolved into the WTA and later in 1973 the US Open became the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money after King threatened to lead a boycott.
“When we dreamed about a tour, dreamed about equal prize money, we were thinking it would take a long time,” King said.
“There’s three things that we thought about with the Original Nine. Firstly, 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 accomplishments, 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.
“As amateurs we used to get $14 a day. We really wanted this. We wanted it for the future generations. We knew if we did well, it would help us a little. The real happenings were going to be to the later generations.
“It was a nightmare. It was really scary. I was really scared. But I kept thinking about the future. It’s very clear now, if you know the history, they’re living our dream.”
It took until 2007 for all the Grand Slams to pay equal prize money and, in the decade and a half since, remuneration has climbed steeply.
Tennis players dominate the world’s highest earning female athletes – four of the top five and seven of the top 10 in 2022, according to Forbes, with Naomi Osaka leading the way.
King is set to turn 80 later this year but has lost none of the fire that drove her to change her sport, and she remains one of tennis’ most outspoken figures.
When Aryna Sabalenka lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at the Australian Open in January and collected prize money of more than £1.5m, her first words were for the woman who had handed her the silverware.
“It’s such an inspiration to receive the trophy from you,” Sabalenka told King. “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for our sport.”
King had watched Sabalenka defeat Elena Rybakina from the front row of Rod Laver Arena along with six of the women who helped her make tennis the most lucrative women’s sport in the world, joined in Melbourne by Casals, Melville, Bartkowicz, Pigeon, Dalton and Ziegenfuss.
WTA agrees news £125m investment deal
The WTA has announced a new investment deal with CVC Capital Partners worth £125m.
The private equity firm previously owned Formula 1 and has also invested in rugby, cricket and French and Spanish football.
This new deal, which has been in the pipeline for some time, is described as a “strategic partnership” and will see CVC secure a 20 per cent stake in the newly created commercial entity of the WTA.
The partnership aims to generate improved commercial growth in the women’s game and raise its profile after a difficult period that has seen the gap to the men’s sport widen.
A statement read: “Commencing in 2023, CVC will be WTA’s commercial partner, investing capital and acting as a catalyst to drive growth of the sport.
“Key focus areas include providing fans with more access to the sport, investing behind the Tour brands, building the player profiles, and investing in digital platforms and commercial capabilities.
“The WTA will continue to own the majority interest in the partnership and retain full regulatory and sporting responsibility for the women’s game.”
The statement also claimed support from the players for the deal, adding that “critical changes” to the calendar would make it easier for fans to follow players.