Original 9 trailblazers stood for tennis equality in 1970

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In this Sept. 23, 1970, photo provided the Houston Library, tennis players hold up $1 bills after signing a contract with World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman to turn pro and start the Virginia Slims tennis circuit. From left standing are: Valerie Ziegenfuss, Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey and Peaches Bartkowicz. From left seated are: Judy Tegart Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Rosie Casals, Gladys Heldman and Kristy Pigeon. Gladys Heldman replaced her daughter, Julie Heldman, who was injured and unable to pose for the 1970 photo. Its the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King and eight other women breaking away from the tennis establishment in 1970 and signing a $1 contract to form the Virginia Slims circuit. That led to the WTA Tour, which offers millions in prize money. (Bela Ugrin/Courtesy Houston Library via AP)

NEW YORK – Billie Jean King and eight other women of the “Original 9” are celebrating the 50th anniversary of signing $1 contracts and breaking away from the U.S. tennis establishment to form the Virginia Slims circuit in 1970. It helped launch the WTA Tour, which now offers millions in global prize money.

Promoters were offering fewer tournaments and substantially less prize money for the women. They were galvanized when former player and promoter Jack Kramer announced the Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles would pay $12,500 to the men's champion and $1,500 to the women's champion.

So they signed with promoter Gladys Heldman to play a tournament in Houston on Sept. 23, 1970, despite a threat from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA) to ban them from Grand Slam events and international competition.

The Original 9 will gather by Zoom to celebrate the inaugural Virginia Slims event. The WTA Tour they helped create offered 55 events in 29 countries and a total of $179 million in prize money in 2019.

This week, the Original 9 were nominated for induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The women received diamond pins from the WTA, which will hand out a Courage Award in their honor.

Here's a look at the women who, in their 20s, took a stand against inequality in their sport.

KRISTY PIGEON:

The youngest of the nine, a 20-year-old Pigeon attended Mills College and later transferred to UC Berkeley. She “loved being a rebel” and had “no reservations” moving ahead with the plan despite the consequences.