When you type “women in tennis” into Google, the top results are “10 Sexiest Female Tennis Players” followed by “Results- Women’s Singles” and “WTA Rankings” with “The 50 Hottest Women of Tennis” not far behind. As usual, for women in the workplace, their look determines their level of successful.
But in fact, women were playing in Wimbledon as early as 1880, wearing corsets, full length skirts, and long sleeves with straw hats, making no money at all. The female tennis players of the early 1960s wore mod minis and called their lack of pay “shamatuerism” because they’d usually get some money under the table from chauvinist men but these same “agents” often expected sexual favours in return. It wasn’t until 1968 when Wimbledon went pro that women started to earn a living by playing the sport they love, even though it was a mere 1/12th of what the men were making!
In 1970, however the “Original Nine” women – spearheaded by the tenacious Billie Jean King – each accepted a $1 contract and left the USTA circuit to start their own pro league with Virginia Slims as their sponsor. The athletes started in Houston and toured around the US wherever they could set up a tournament, often having to go to and buy their own balls to set it up while handing out free tickets to whomever they met along the way. They defined themselves as women who wanted more than just to be placated with a basic salary, and did their best to take charge of their careers.
In 1971, just one year after the very first Virginia Slims invitational, champion Billie Jean King astounded all the non-believers and winning a total of $100,000 that year. This was a lot of money for an athlete back then!
This newfound excitement over women’s tennis couldn’t help but lead to some backlash from the haters, particularly from self-proclaimed male chauvinist ex-pro tennis player Bobby Riggs. His broad and brash statements that “women don’t play half as good as men” caught the media’s attention as he challenged Billie Jean to a match, hoping to prove that women were not worth realizing their pipe dreams for equal rights. Unfortunately for progressive women everywhere Billie Jean King did not accept Riggs’ shallow challenge but on Mother’s Day 1973, another tennis champion, Margaret Court did, and she lost the match badly. That same year after winning the Triple Crown at Wimbledon, Billie Jean stepped up for women everywhere to redeem the Mother’s Day Massacre and finally accepted Riggs’ childish dare. She beat him outright, three sets to zero. After admitting defeat the showman jumped over the net, shook her hand and told her “I underestimated you.”
The Original Nine have now become the Women’s Tennis Association and some tennis tournaments now have equal prize money for men and women. Billie Jean King became synonymous with Gloria Steinman as far as women’s right were concerned, and even went on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor from President Obama in 2009. Although this seems like a complete turnaround in gender politics in the sport, no matter how many grand slams Serena Williams wins, the media will likely never stop focusing on her outfits.