On September 23, 1970, at the Houston Racquet Club, a group of women tennis players who were later dubbed “the Original 9” signed $1 contracts with promoter Gladys Heldman to join the newly established Virginia Slims Series. The Original 9, who were protesting against the inequity in prize money awarded in the men’s and women’s game, include Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville Reid, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss, and Julie Heldman.
Women’s professional tennis as we know it today was launched at that moment with the inaugural $7,500 Virginia Slims of Houston event which became the groundbreaker for all others. It led to the start of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), founded by Billie Jean King in 1973. The WTA is now the global leader in women’s professional sports with more than 1,650 players, representing 84 nations, competing for a record $180 million in prize money.
To pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of this historic moment, WTA Charities and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative hosted a private virtual event that included a conversation with the Original 9 to benefit COVID-19 relief efforts for women, with a focus on women of color.
In honor of the Original 9 in the same week 50 years ago that they launched professional women’s tennis, I interviewed Abdul Sillah, my longtime coach, dear friend, and the athletic trainer to USTA greats like Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, and Naomi Osaka.