Serena Williams recently became the most successful player in WTA history in terms of prize money won. This accolade of her can definitely be attributed to her flawless gameplay and the amount of money at stake for every tournament. The latter reason played a major role not only for Serena but also for the formation of WTA.
After the advent of the Open era in 1968, there were two main factors that affected the female tennis players. Firstly, they didn’t know how many open tournaments were present for them. Secondly, they faced a lot of discrimination as far as the prize money was concerned. In the first Wimbledon tournament of the Open Era, Rod Laver and Billie Jean King won £2000 and £750 respectively.
Two main circuits were prevalent in those days. The World Championship Tennis(WCT) and the National Tennis League(NTL). Billie Jean King along with Ann Jones, Rosie Casals and Francoise Durr joined the NTL with George McCall as the promoter of those players. Apart from playing the US Open and the Wimbledon this group also formed their own tournaments. King became the highest paid female athlete but she was still distant from equalling the men’s prize money.
In the late 1960s, the ITF put a ban on King and her group from participating in the Wightman Cup and the USLTA didn’t consider Casals and King in their rankings in 1968 and 1969. When 1970 arrived, the male champions won twelve times more money than their female counterparts.
“Promoters were making more money. Male tennis players were making more money. Everybody was making more money except the women”.- Billie Jean King
Gladys Heldman, a publisher of World Tennis Magazine, played an instrumental role in the revolt to equalize the prize money. She contacted Philip Morris and Joe Cullman for some guidance. Afterwards, she took out $5000 from her own pocket and signed a $1 contract with Billie Jean King, Rosemary Casals, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville Reid and Judy Tegart Dalton.
Heldman first targetted the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles who gave eight times more money to the men. Jack Kramer was the tournament director at that time. Heldman asked Kramer to equalize the prize money or they would boycott the event. Kramer refused. As a result, the nine players refused to take part in the tournament and instead formed the new 1970 Houston Women’s Invitation tournament which gave away $7500 to the winner.
“He(Kramer) doesn’t believe in women’s tennis. Why should he be part of this match? He doesn’t believe in half of the match. I’m not playing. Either he goes – or I go.”- Billie Jean King before winning the Battle of Sexes asking for Kramer to be barred as a commentator in that match.
With those nine players who are dubbed as the Original 9, Heldman further went on to form the Virginia Slims Circuit. This circuit composed initially of 8 tournaments and later 11 more tournaments were added. All the tournaments took place in the States. The prize money totalled to $309,100. Apart from the 9 players, 31 more players joined the circuit. The first successful circuit was thus established in 1971.
In 1973, Billie Jean King organized a meeting at the Gloucester Hotel, London. Wimbledon was only a week away. In the meeting, the ILTF’s Women Grand Prix circuit was all set to be absorbed into the newly formed Women’s Tennis Association(WTA). Later that year, the US Open became the first slam to provide equal prize money to both male and female players.
After the WTA was formed two main sponsors of the women’s tour arrived. The first was Colgate (later renamed to Toyota) and the second one was Avon. The Colgate series was spread across the world whereas Avon was limited to the USA. In 1983, both the series of circuits merged and the sponsorship rights rested solely with the Virginia Slims Circuit. The circuit was renamed to Virginia Slims World Championship Series. Due to the efforts put in by King and other players, today both the men and women are payed equally.
The women’s tour structure that is followed today was introduced in 2009. Apart from the Grand Slams and the year end championships, the WTA organizes the Premier Mandatory, Premier Five and Premier series of tournaments. Further events are categorized under the ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour.