Whether longtime American legend Serena Williams, Japanese star Naomi Osaka or Canadian sensation Bianca Andreesu win the title in a Grand Slam tennis tournament these days, one thing is for sure: the players will receive the same prize. in silver than the male winner.
But that was not always the case. The open era of tennis we know today began in 1968, allowing professionals and amateurs to compete together for cash prizes. The gender gap was glaring from the start, with 1970 male winner Ilie Nastase earning $ 3,500 while Billie Jean King earning $ 600.
King, who has won a total of 39 Grand Slam titles including 12 singles crowns, was not about to stay silent, winning more than five times less than his male counterpart. think women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, frosting, and icing on top as well.
King experienced gender disparities from the start
When King was 12, she played in a 1955 tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and was ready to step into a group photo of junior players, until asked to step out of the frame. The reason: She wore shorts instead of the traditional tennis skirts other girls wore. The first moment was revealing for the rising star, as she got her first glimpse of the gender disparity in the sport she loved.
By the time she scored her first Wimbledon victory in 1966 as an amateur, she also rose to the top of the rankings, becoming the No.1 player. Despite this status, she was still a student at Los Angeles State College earning $ 100 per week as a games instructor.
Changes were underway at the start of the Open Era, but even when King won her first Wimbledon she got £ 750 (around $ 1,064) as opposed to male winner Rod Laver, who scored £ 2,000 (around $ 2,840).
“I had no idea we were going to get different cash prizes,” she said on American masters. “I thought it was totally unfair.”
King and the ‘Original 9’ hosted their own tournament
The gap was discouraging, but more so, the playing opportunities for women were diminishing. “From 68 to 70, we just had fewer seats to compete,” King told Tennis Channel of the abandoned tournaments and the women being paid eight times less than the men. “The writing was on the wall. If you look at old quotes from the good old days, around the late 60s and 70s, you will see men telling us we should stop and go take care of our husbands.
But the players weren’t going to throw away their racquets. Instead, they made a racquet of a different kind. They started their own tournament in September 1970 with the help of World tennis magazine editor Gladys Heldman.
Along with King, tennis stars Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Judy Tegart Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss became known as Original 9, signing the Virginia Slims Invitational in Houston. for $ 1 each. – and posing for an iconic photo where they each held a single dollar bill. This single-digit deal allowed them to become “contract pros”.
“We weren’t sure what our fate was, but we knew it was in our hands for the first time,” King said.
She threatened to boycott the 1973 US Open
While the move was bold, the pay differentials continued. Although King was celebrated in 1971 as the first female athlete of any kind to win more than $ 100,000 – even wearing a crown with the six figures on it and receiving a call from President Richard Nixon – but it didn’t still can’t compare to what men used to do for the same line of work. At the 1972 US Open, King won $ 15,000 less than the male winner.
Prior to Wimbledon in 1973, she barricaded 63 players at the Gloucester Hotel in London and formally formed the Women’s Tennis Association. Later that year, she threatened to boycott the US Open unless women’s prices were equal to men’s.
It worked. With a grant from Ban deodorant (especially since King once said the disparity “stank”), the winners of the men’s and women’s singles would take home $ 25,000.
The “battle of the sexes” proved the power of the king
Even with this historic Slam, won by Australian Margaret Court, King was not done proving that women deserved to be on an equal footing. On September 20, 1973, she accepted a taunt from Bobby Riggs, a male tennis player famous for his chauvinism, once saying, “Women have their place in the bedroom and the kitchen, in that order. He had long tried to challenge female players, defeating Court in May in a straight set victory that became known as the Mother’s Day Massacre.
Although King had already turned it down, she accepted a $ 100,000 walk to which Riggs said, “I’ll tell you why I’m going to win. It’s a woman and they don’t have emotional stability. She will suffocate.
While women’s tennis to this day calls the winner based on two out of three sets winning, the rules for what has become the “battle of the sexes” followed the men’s three out of five rules.
As they clashed, King showed who the true king of the courts is, dominating in a straight set victory over Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. With that, she not only proved equality, she also won the paycheck she long deserved.
It still took years for other Grand Slam tournaments to pay as well
Even with those defining moments over four decades ago, there was a long way to go. After the US Open equal pay movement in 1973, the other three Grand Slam tournaments were slow to follow. The Australian Open joined in 1984 but did not do so from 1996 to 2000. And it wasn’t until 2006 that the French Open (also known as Roland Garros) followed and finally Wimbledon in 2007.
“What started out as a few women and a dollar turned into the thousands, living the dream, our dream,” King said of The Long Road. “We were athletes who wanted to compete and along the way we made history, determined to win, not just for ourselves, but for women around the world.”