Queens of the Court: How the Original 9 impacted the women's tour

Queens of the Court: How the Original 9 impacted the women's tour

To put into perspective the effect of the Original 9’s bold move, in 2020 nine WTA players made the Forbes’ Top 10 list of highest-paid female athletes.

Margaret Court holds an all-time record of 24 Grand Slam titles. Serena Williams owns the Open Era record with 23. While 78-year-old Court amassed less than a million dollars in prize money, 39-year-old Serena has?earned a staggering $93,634,967—the highest career winnings in women’s tennis and the fourth all-time overall total behind Novak Djokovic ($145,656,177), Roger Federer ($129,946,683) and Rafael Nadal ($123,482,764).

Why such a disparity between the two women’s earnings? Two words: Original 9. Founded in 1970 by Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kerry Melville, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss, these trailblazers sought to disrupt the system that had stifled the female players. They were fed up with the unfair treatment they were getting. “We wanted to be paid equally and we wanted to be treated fairly,” King recalled.

In a big move for equality, they formed the first women’s tour—the Virginia Slims Circuit. As a symbolic gesture, they all signed $1 contracts at the inaugural tournament in Houston, which was won by?Casals.

“With one unified voice, each of us signed a ceremonial $1 contracts,” King remembered. “We drew a line in the sand and we put everything we had on that line. It was now up to us to create our own tour, to find a place to make a living and to breathe life into women’s professional tennis.

“We were committed to the dream and we had one simple vision for our sport—we wanted any girl born any place in the world, if she was good enough, to have an opportunity to compete, be recognized for her accomplishments and make a living playing professional tennis.”

Recalled Casals, “we had nine very heroic women who really took a chance and made a bold statement by taking that dollar bill, because that dollar bill… turned out to be multi-million.”

That "simple vision"?would become the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973. That same year, the US Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to offer female players financial parity with their male counterparts, thanks to the Original 9 and their unwavering efforts. Twenty-eight years later, the Australian Open followed suit.

Inspired by the women that paved the way, Venus Williams picked up the baton and joined the fight in 2005 to continue championing for the women. That year during Wimbledon—a day before she captured her third Venus Rosewater Dish—she took a meeting with the Grand Slam Board to implore Wimbledon and Roland Garros to close the pay gap. They did.

"Venus, in particular, helped us get equal prize money in the majors,” King said. “She was amazing. She really got Wimbledon to make the big step.”

You don’t have to look far to see the effect?of the Original 9's bold move. In August, nine WTA players made the Forbes’ Top 10 list of highest-paid female athletes, with Naomi Osaka ($37.4 million) and Serena ($36 million) leading the way.

“We have lived to see our vision become reality,” King said.

From left: King, Bartkowicz, Pigeon, Ziegenfuss, Dalton, Heldman, Reid, Richey and Casals (AP)

This weekend, Tennis Channel is highlighting the legends who have shaped the women’s game—including King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Tracy Austin—to continue celebrating the founding members’ 50th anniversary.

Viewers will be taken back to the 1973 all-American Wimbledon final, which featured Evert and defending champion King. Evert had just turned pro the year before, but that didn’t stop her from giving the veteran a run for her money. King was on cruise control, 6-0, 3-1, when the teen?started to come alive. Despite Evert’s gritty effort, King ultimately captured her fifth Wimbledon crown. She would go on to win another one in 1975, accumulating a total of 12 Grand Slam singles titles.

Another featured classic is the 1993 Australian Open final between chief rivals Monica Seles and Steffi Graf, which saw Seles snatch?a victory from the jaws of defeat. After dropping the first set to Graf, who had won the title three times, the two-time defending champion mounted a spirited comeback to claim her third title in Melbourne.?Three months later, she would suffer a stab injury after an attack?by Graf’s obsessive fan during a match in Hamburg. It would take her more than two years to recover from the injury.

Television Schedule


1973 Wimbledon Final: King vs. Evert
1993 Australian Open Final: Seles vs. Graf
2005 Australian Open Final: Serena Williams vs. Lindsay Davenport

Sunday 12/6

1982 Australian Open Final: Evert vs. Martina?Navratilova
2001 US Open Final: Venus Williams vs. Serena Williams
2002 Australian Open Final: Jennifer Capriati vs. Martina Hingis
2005 WTA Tokyo Final: Maria Sharapova vs. Lindsay Davenport