The ‘Houston 9’ and the Birth of Women’s Professional Tennis

The latest installment of Tennis magazine's year-long anniversary celebration is a winner.

We will forever be grateful to the gang at tennis.com for foregoing a BuzzFeed-style Top 50 list to celebrate the half-century mark of Tennis magazine. Instead, every Thursday across this entire year, they are going in-depth to revisit a seminal event intersecting with their publication’s 1965-2015 history. This week’s article is both an ace down the middle and a resonant read post-Patricia Arquette’s fiery Best Actress acceptance speech.

As senior writer Steve Tignor explains, 1970 was a time of thorough tennis-gender inequality. When Billie Jean King decided to do something about a summer tournament for which the men’s top prize money was eight times that of the amount designated for the female champion, she got some critical help from Phillip Morris and another member of the sports media fraternity: World Tennis magazine publisher (and New York City native) Gladys Heldman. From the article:

Heldman, her lawyer’s genes kicking in, crafted an ingenious way out of the impasse. She signed the nine players who were willing to risk [USLTA] suspension to a nominal $1 “personal service” contract with World Tennis. This made them “contract pros,” which in turn made Houston an all-professional event, which in turn took it out of the USLTA’s jurisdiction. The USLTA went ahead and suspended the players, but the tournament went on as planned. At the same time, Heldman set up two more events and extended her players’ contracts.

In Houston, King, Rosie Casals, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Val Ziegenfuss, Judy Tegart Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid and Peaches Bartkowicz posed for a now-iconic photograph while waving dollar bills. With late-entrant Julie Heldman, they became known as the Houston 9. Julie’s mother, Gladys, posed with them in her customary sunglasses. Women tennis players, it seemed, could be pros. They could even be outlaws.

The following year, thanks to that inaugural Virginia Slims Invitational and the dawn of women’s professional tennis, King became the first female player to earn over $100,000.