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Women's professional tennis celebrates its 40th anniversary today. On 23 September 1970 nine players, now dubbed "The Original 9", led by Billie-Jean King, signed symbolic $1 contracts with the late Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis publications, to compete in the newly-created Virginia Slims Circuit.
"When the nine of us signed $1 contracts with Gladys, one of our goals was to create opportunities for new generations," said King. "We wanted to make sure that any young girl, if she was good enough and if she wanted to, would have the opportunity to make a living playing tennis. Now, 40 years later, we are seeing our dreams come to life."
"Billie Jean King and her team of pioneers – the Original 9 – will forever serve as inspiration for every woman who has ever had a goal and a dream," said Stacey Allaster, Chairman and CEO of the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association).
"Sports are a microcosm of society and Billie Jean and her fellow players were able to use tennis as a platform for social change, one that’s led to incredible opportunities for millions of women around the world."
The WTA was founded following a meeting held during the 1970 Wimbledon Championships at the Gloucester Hotel in London, which united all of women’s professional tennis into one Tour. King was the original president of the Women’s Tennis Association, which in 1974 further increased its financial stature by signing a television broadcast contract with CBS, the first in the history of women’s professional sports. Also in 1974, the US Open offered women tennis players equal prize money to their male counterparts.
By 1980, there were more than 250 professional women tennis players competing all over the world in the WTA’s 47 events with total prize money of $7.2 million. During the 1980’s, Martina Navratilova became the first woman to earn more than $1 million in a single season. She bettered that effort in 1984 by crossing the $2-million mark in single season prize money, earning more than John McEnroe, the men’s World No.1 at the time.
The historic achievement of equal prize money at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2007 meant that following a 37-year campaign that began with King and the Original 9, all four Grand Slams offered parity for the first time. Six other tournaments have followed in the Grand Slams’ footsteps and now offer equal prize money, including the year-end WTA Championships.
"What Billie Jean and her fellow players did was obviously history-changing and I don't think there is a single female tennis player today who doesn't feel a lot of gratitude to them and their courage," said Ana.
"We are fortunate to be in the position we are in today, with the same prize money as the guys at combined events, and we owe a lot of that to what these women did 40 years ago."
The Original 9 consisted of Billie Jean King, Rosemary Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss, and Julie Heldman.