Leadership: Billie-Jean King and the roots of the WTA

No person is better placed to comment on the development of the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) than its founder Billie Jean King. In this archive interview from 2013, she tells Kevin Roberts how it all began and discusses the direction of women’s tennis in the intervening years.

Forty years ago, Billie Jean King’s patience had snapped. Patronised by the tennis establishment and jilted by her male equivalents in the sport, the 29-year-old was well aware that galvanising her disgruntled peers for a meeting at London’s Gloucester Hotel was likely to mark the final chance for her to launch a determined assault on an inherently unequal system.

After the last of the underpaid and unappreciated women’s tennis stars filed into the room, King turned to Dutch player Betty Stove.

“I said to her, ‘Betty, lock the door,’ and it was at that point that I knew there was no going back,” King tells SportBusiness International.

By the end of the meeting, those present had signed their names to bylaws drawn up by King’s attorney husband at the time, Larry. Those signatures of commitment would lead to the creation of the WTA, and an irrevocable change to tennis’ landscape.

Sport, as is always the case, refused to stand still. One week later, the Wimbledon Championships got underway, and two weeks after that, King claimed the third of her four titles at the All-England Club. However, the fact that this year’s Wimbledon women’s singles champion will receive £1.6 million – the same prize money as the men’s champion and more than 530 times the value of the measly £3,000 cheque picked up by King for her triumph at SW19 40 years ago – is testament to the work of King and her revolutionaries.

Four decades may have passed since Stove locked that door at the Gloucester Hotel, but the emotions for King remain as raw as ever.

“I was scared, for sure,” she says. “I was very afraid, in fact, because we didn’t know the future, but we had a vision and a dream. We were taking the sport from amateurism. When we finally established the WTA, things finally calmed down. It solidified everything. Looking back, it was a huge moment at the Gloucester Hotel in June 1973.

“Everyone in that room knew that we were all paying a very dear price. We all spent an enormous amount of time and effort to persuade others of the cause. A board was formed, and then we selected players who we thought could, in turn, influence a couple of other players each, and told them to go out and do just that. I remember that we had a very good plan and Larry, my former husband, had all of the bylaws written out. We knew it was important that people in that room signed something so they would commit to it.”

Those frustrations of 1973 were borne out of years of poor management from tennis’ archaic administrators, who oversaw irregular tours and controversial seeding systems whilst slipping under-the-table payments to players who often had to supplement their on-court careers with second incomes. In 1970, King collaborated with fellow stars Valerie Ziegenfuss, Nancy Richey, Jane Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Kerry Reid, Rosemary Casals and Gladys Heldman to form the ‘original nine’ who rebelled against the United States Lawn Tennis Association and set up their own tour of eight professional tournaments.

By 1971, membership of King’s group had swelled from nine players to 40, paving the way for the creation of the Virginia Slims Circuit, which ultimately evolved into the WTA Tour.

“It was a tumultuous time in the early 1970s,” says King. “I think about the others who really cared and thought about it and changed the sport for the better. I may have been the leader in the movement, but we had all been ostracised and we were a team, and I don’t think the others ever got the credit that they deserved. We wanted to be cohesive and we knew we would be stronger together.”

Power struggles

At the time of the WTA revolution, the men’s game was also undergoing its own internal power struggle. In 1973, a year after the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) was formed, 81 of the world’s top players boycotted Wimbledon to protest the suspension of Nikola Pilic, who was accused of refusing to play for his country, Yugoslavia, in the Davis Cup.

Later that year, King took up a challenge from former professional Bobby Riggs (pictured, below-right) in the so-called ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match in front of an estimated TV audience of 90 million. King, who was initially reluctant to take up the challenge, won in straight sets, but later said that she feared a defeat at that sensitive juncture would “ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self esteem”.

Happily for King, she claimed a victory that remains more famous than any of her 12 grand slam singles titles, although the exhausting tension on her face is clear to see for anyone who looks back at the grainy footage of the match. Tensions between men and women in tennis were not restricted to that memorable night in Houston, though. In the early 1970s, winners of men’s tennis tournaments frequently earned four times as much as their female counterparts.

However, King bristles at the suggestion that she was driven by a desire to change the outlook of women’s sport. “You never hear someone tell a male athlete that they’ve done a lot for men’s sport,” she says. “You always want to create more opportunities and empower others, but it wasn’t about fighting for women – I was fighting for equality. Women were getting a third of the prize money that men were receiving at the time. If it had been the other way round, I would have supported the men.

“A lot of people don’t understand that we were rejected by the men in tennis back then. I offered to help them out. I thought about what we could do if we joined together as a single force off the court. It would have been a huge media opportunity. I truly thought that we could do things together, and who knows what would have happened if they had agreed to it. But they turned us down, and I think they made a big mistake.

“So doing all of this and creating the WTA was, from a personal perspective, plan B. One thing about life though is you need to be able to adapt. When the men rejected us, we knew everything was entirely in our own hands. In that situation, you find out what you are made of, because you are either going to make it happen or you’re not. We knew it was our job to shape the future.”

With destiny in its own hands, the WTA has never looked back. This year, the tour will stage 54 tournaments in 33 countries, while the WTA has contracted revenues of $206 million in the current four-year cycle through to 2016. Even some of the sport’s most traditional administrators have softened over time. In 2007, Wimbledon and Roland Garros finally became the last of the grand slams to offer equal prize money to men and women. However, King insists that there is still work to be done.

“Men have controlled 95 per cent of the media for as long as we can remember, and it’s really important to realise that, from childhood, we have seen the world through the eyes of men,” she says. “I think people are starting to wake up to that fact. I think this sport gives women self confidence so they think about themselves differently. When you talk about the equal prize money, it’s not about money. It’s about the message. However, when I flick through the pages of some newspapers, it is very difficult to find anything about women’s sport. It’s a difficult mindset to change.”

King’s words are particularly pertinent given the intriguing tale women’s tennis has to tell in this golden era for the sport. The current top 10 players in the WTA rankings all hail from different countries, while intense competition at the summit means that tournament winners have never been so difficult to predict. It is a thrilling time to follow the sport, and King is delighted by the string of multi-national, commercially-successful superstars that are driving women’s tennis towards a brighter future.

“When we set up the WTA we wanted it to be as global as possible, so we had players from across the world involved,” King adds. “Isn’t it wonderful to see so many nationalities at the top in the WTA rankings now? I want everyone to have access to the sport, and we haven’t even really got into the grassroots of Africa and parts of Asia yet. Can you imagine when we do? Holy camoly.

“It’s good to stop and celebrate what has happened over the past 40 years, and what [WTA chairman and CEO] Stacey Allaster has done, and what Larry Scott did before Stacey, is fantastic for the WTA. But I’ve never been one to look back really, and the focus should always be on the future because it’s an exciting future.” King, who mentors youngsters who dream of following in her footsteps, says she is helping to “pass on the baton” to the next generation.

“When former players give advice to youngsters, it helps to give them perspective,” she says. “Keeping the generations connected is very important as the more you know about your history, the more you’ll learn about yourself. When I was an amateur I used to sit and watch players and ask myself, ‘why didn’t the women get together in the 1950s and 1960s to do something?’ Why didn’t they form the WTA then?

“But the next generation need to be aware of their opportunities. The global sponsors the sport has now are fantastic, but I always tell youngsters that money doesn’t necessarily make you a good person. Whenever I speak to young players now in the sport, I tell them that they are living the dream. Each generation needs to stand on the shoulders of the generation before them, and I am very proud of my generation.”

Forty years young, with the foundations in place to make dreams become a reality for the next generation of Billie Jean Kings. Not bad at all for a plan B.

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