Professional women’s tennis is coming to Berkeley – in many ways, where it all began


This week, local tennis fans will have the chance to get a close look at many of the best female tennis players in the world during the Berkeley Women’s $ 60,000 Challenge at the Berkeley Tennis Club.

The first year of this tournament, in 2018, the winner was a passionate Florida resident named Sofia Kenin. Just over 18 months later, Kenin won the title at one of sport’s prestigious Grand Slam events, the Australian Open, and by the end of 2020 he was the top-ranked American. in the world.

A common thread links the Berkeley Tennis Club and the creation of professional women’s tennis. Fifty-one years ago, last September, nine female tennis players and a zealous magazine editor started a revolution that changed the face of sport. Five of the 10 rebels had close ties to the club.

The one you probably know best is Billie Jean King, the global icon who won 39 Grand Slam titles, including a record 20 at Wimbledon. King is also renowned for his infamous 1973 victory in the “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs.

In the summer of 1966, shortly after winning his first singles title at Wimbledon, King and her husband, Larry, moved from Southern California to the Bay Area so that Larry could begin his law school at the UC Berkeley. The two lived a short walk from the Berkeley Tennis Club, where King frequently trained with another top player, San Franciscan Rosie Casals, and promising junior from Danville, Kristy Pigeon. In 1968, King won his third straight singles title at Wimbledon. She and Casals won the women’s doubles for the second year in a row. And Pigeon that year was the junior champion at Wimbledon.

WHAT: Berkeley Tennis Club $ 60,000 Women’s Challenge

OR: Berkeley Tennis Club, One Tunnel Road, Berkeley

WHEN: Main draw (32 singles, 16 doubles) – from Tuesday September 28 to Sunday October 3. Qualifying tournament (32 singles) – Monday September 27 to Tuesday September 28

WHO: World ranking tennis players

INFO: Free entry Monday, Sept. 27 Tickets $ 15 per day from Tuesday to Friday, Sept. 29-Oct. 1; and $ 20 from Saturday to Sunday October 2-3.

(Berkeleyside is sponsor of the tournament)

But hitting the ball well wasn’t the only thing they thought about. Before 1968, tennis was an amateur sport. Players were not allowed to win cash prizes, but were instead compensated with random payouts under the table. It was hardly a lucrative way to earn a living, with King earning barely $ 20,000 in 1967.

With tennis finally becoming an Open sport in 1968, cash prizes entered the picture. But as new tournaments flourished, the economic situation was hardly fair. King’s paycheck for his 1968 Wimbledon victory: £ 750, compared to £ 2,000 for male champion Rod Laver. And over the next two years, it only got worse. “We were being ousted by the men,” King said.

Along with these changes in tennis, what was happening at Berkeley in the 1960s greatly affected the way King and many of his colleagues viewed the world. As King writes in All in, her autobiography published last month: “In Berkeley, it seemed like everything in American life was being reexamined, including what it meant to be a woman and the role of women in the workplace and in the society. I also wondered where I fit in.

Casals and Pigeon were also in social harmony. A longtime San Francisco resident, Casals had come of age at Golden Gate Park, where she played tennis simultaneously and soaked up all the cultural and political changes going on in the 1960s. “I went to Mills College in Oakland and then UC Berkeley, ”Pigeon told reporter Steve Flink last year. “Both schools have promoted tremendous feminist attitudes; I remember Betty Friedan coming to give a talk.

On the tennis front, the summer of 1970 was the turning point. Each September, after the US Open, two major tournaments were held in California. Los Angeles was the site of the Southwest Pacific Open. The Berkeley Tennis Club hosted the Pacific Coast Championships. Weeks before the US Open, women learned that the LA tournament offered the male champion $ 12,500 – and the female winner $ 1,500. Any woman who didn’t qualify for the quarter-finals would win nothing.

Gladys Heldman: Credit: IInternational Tennis Hall of Fame

Enter another woman with close ties to the Berkeley Tennis Club. Gladys Heldman first learned to play there in the late 1940s. In 1953, after moving to New York, she launched World tennis, a magazine that quickly became the main voice in sport – not just on matches, but on tennis politics. Heldman also cultivated many corporate contacts. Among the most notable was Joe Cullman, CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris.

Upset over what was brewing for the LA tournament, King, Casals and several other women approached Heldman, a savvy businessman. A boycott was considered, but Heldman had a better idea. “She suggested they organize their own tournament,” said Gladys’ daughter Julie, who was also a pro (and had spent the summer of 1967 training at the Berkeley Tennis Club). Gladys is getting ready to move to Houston and is quickly organizing a professional women’s tournament there. An asset up its sleeve came from the long-standing relationship with Cullman: sponsorship of the Virginia Slims brand of two-year-old Philip Morris. Even though the players were ambivalent about being sponsored by a cigarette company, they also knew it was their best way to make a living. “We made a deal with the devil,” Julie said, “but we did a tour. ”

The “Original Nine” tennis players: Back row (left to right) Valerie Ziegenfuss, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz; front row, Judy Tegart Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, circa 1970. Credit: IInternational Tennis Hall of Fame

The $ 7,500 Virginia Slims Invitational was held September 23-26, 1970 at the Houston Racquet Club. King, Casals, Pigeon and Heldman were joined by five peers – Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Kerry Melville and Judy Dalton. The tournament was a huge success. Casals won the title. King wrote years later: “I think women’s tennis received more media coverage this week than the whole year before.

The Berkeley Tennis Club was the next stop. The total prize money for women was initially set at $ 2,000 (compared to $ 25,000 for men). But after witnessing all the attention in Houston, Pacific Coast Tournament Director Barry MacKay offered to increase it to $ 4,400. Heldman responded by asking for $ 11,000. MacKay agreed. Almost 30 years later, MacKay and King, working together for HBO during Wimbledon, shared a laugh as they remembered how King approached MacKay on the steps of the Berkeley Tennis Club making sure he had the $ 11,000. . This tournament also went very well, with Richey beating Casals in the final.

Pigeon said, “A lot of these original true feminists were missing the mark by burning bras. In a way, they didn’t make as much of a splash as us tennis players. We have shown that as athletes we are as interesting as men. Our competition was exciting to watch and we were able to attract people. For me, it is a more powerful way to establish equality.

Satisfied with the results of her foray into tennis, Virginia Slims offered more than $ 300,000 in sponsorship dollars this fall for a year-round tour. One of the main reasons he was able to provide so much support was that from January 1, 1971, cigarette advertisements were banned from television. Having reached potential customers with her aired “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” campaign, Virginia Slims saw tennis as a natural way to reach them directly.

King turned out to be the most successful contender. By the fall of 1971, she had become the first athlete to earn $ 100,000 in a calendar year, a total greater than any but five major league baseball players.

Following what happened in the fall of 1970, women’s tennis was on its way to becoming the multi-million dollar international circuit that made it by far the most lucrative women’s professional sport. Gladys Heldman was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979. She passed away in 2003. King, Casals and Richey also entered the Hall of Fame for their own singular achievements. And in July 2020, the nine women – nicknamed “The Original Nine” – were inducted en masse.

And it all started in Berkeley.


General historian of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the stories of Oakland-based Joel Drucker have appeared in The New York Times, Tennis, Tennis Channel and Racquet. He has been a member of the Berkeley Tennis Club since 1990.

Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Berkeley Women’s $ 60,000 Challenge.

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