Sport

GRAND LEGACY

Five decades on, Billie Jean King says birth of WTA among her greatest successes

Five decades on, Billie Jean King says birth of WTA among her greatest successes
Tennis legend Billie Jean King during the trophy ceremony after the women's singles final at the 2023 Australian Open. (Photo: Robert Prange / Getty Images)

For trailblazer Billie Jean King, her leading role in the foundation of the Women’s Tennis Association half a century ago ranks above the many successes she enjoyed on court as a standout moment in her life.

Billie Jean King (79) was the leader of nine players – the “Original Nine” – who formed the Virginia Slims Circuit in 1970 and three years later she spearheaded the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which became the first truly global professional sports tour for women.

Following a meeting of about 60 fellow players at a packed conference room in London’s Gloucester Hotel on 21 June 1973, King emerged as the president of the new organisation and began her push for equal prize money for women at the Grand Slams.

“It was pretty exciting. It was probably one of the most exciting days for me,” King told Reuters during the French Open.

“Are you kidding? We finally had this. We had one voice. We had power and we were all together.

“I was so happy, I said ‘thank you God’ because I didn’t know if anybody was going to show up (for the meeting) except the usual characters.”

Billie Jean King at Wimbledon. (Photo: Bob Martin / Allsport)

King won 12 Grand Slam singles titles and a further 27 in doubles but said the exhilaration of the early days of the WTA was unmatched by her considerable successes on court.

“Everyone thinks about what you win. That’s third or fourth on the line,” she said.

“I was getting no sleep, but I was so happy. It gave me so much buoyancy and adrenaline that every day I woke up I was like ‘we have a WTA. God, now we can really make things happen’.

“That was just step one. You know me, I’ve got the vision up here. We still had so much to do, (but) I knew that it was going to happen.”

‘Sign of belief’

The WTA has gone from strength to strength over the past 50 years, with circuit restructures and bringing major worldwide sponsors on board helping to drive growth.

This year, it announced a commercial partnership with private equity fund CVC Capital Partners worth a reported $150-million.

King said it was vital for the governing body to use that investment to grow the game.

The guys think they’re giving up something if they do something with us. But how are we ever going to be equal if we don’t have more attention, more money, more everything?

“CVC coming on board was helpful,” she said. “Anytime you can get money and investment and people who believe in you, it’s very important. But there are also demands they have to get their investment back.

“Anytime you get a lot of money in something and you use it properly, that really helps push your support forward. It shows a sign of belief in us as well, which I think is really important psychologically.”

All four Grand Slams now offer equal prize money for men and women, as do many of the other big tournaments, but King said her campaigning for pay equity was by no means finished.

Billie Jean King in the 1970s. (Photo: Robert Riger / Getty Images)

“I’ve started to ask… companies whether they spend as much on women’s sports as they do on men’s sports and start to put the heat on them, make them go, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about it’, which is usually what you get,” she said.

King said she hoped to one day see a unified governing body for men’s and women’s tennis amid increased cooperation between the ATP and the WTA in recent years.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Four lessons from Serena Williams for sportswomen in Africa

“I want us all together. The guys think they’re giving up something if they do something with us. But how are we ever going to be equal if we don’t have more attention, more money, more everything?

“Sincere, great leadership comes from empathy and caring and not about yourself but about others and how we can help one another do better.

“This year I realised it’s been 50 years (of the WTA) and I go, ‘oh, that’s great’, but let’s think of… the future, to try to shape the future.” Reuters/DM

 

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