A party of 14 women associated with the $100,000 Virginia Slims of Washington tennis tournament, including eight players, visited the White House yesterday.
They were ushered into the Oval Office and introduced individually to President Ford, who these days is concerned with his State of the Union message. "He was very nice," said tour director Stephanie Johnson, "but he didn't seem happy."
Many of these women and their colleagues have been thinking recently about the State of Women's Tennis. Some aren't happy about it either.Unlike Mr. Ford, they are concerned about averting a potential slowdown in a boon economy, rather than escaping a recession. They also have another term, of indeterminate length, to sort out their problems.
There is general consensus among thoughtful insiders that this is a critical season for the women's pro tour, which has enjoyed remarkable acceptance and growth since its inception in 1970. That was the winter of the women players' discontent. They decided they had to break away form the male pros or forever be relegated to second-class status in the pro game.
The tour actually started in 1971, but dates to a makeshift eight-woman, $7,500 even at Houston in September, 1970. From that tiny oak tree, a mighty nut has grown: the 11-week Virginia Slims Circuit which started here this week offers $1,250,000 in prize money.
This is the second year of Slims tournaments without Billie Jean King, queen of the original crusaders, as a singles player, the first without her driving personality at least occasionally on the scene. It is strange not having BJK around, wearing out a pack of practice partners to the strains of blaring soul music, reminding young players of their promotional responsibilities, spewing forth reams of "good copy."
Evonne Goolagong, Chris Evert's antagonist in the magical tennis rivalry of the '70s, is absent, expecting her first child in May. Martina Navratilova, who arrived with such an explosion of raw talent and star appeal in 1975, faltered last season, perhaps because she indulged herself in excesses of freedom and capitalist buying power, not to mention rich desserts and Gucci jewelry, after defecting from Czechoslovakia to Beverly Hills late in '75.
Sue Barker, Dianne Fromnoltz, Natasha, Chmyreva, Greer Stevens, Terry Holladay and a few other young players have shown bright flashes but not much consistency, and no one has emerged to challenge Evert and ignite a new rivalry. Margaret Court, 34, who won 14 of the 18 Slims tournaments she played in 1973, returns next week, but she is uncertain how much or how well she will play.
There are pressing questions facing the amalgamation of aging pioneers (Rosie Casals, Kerry Melville Reid, Val Ziegenfuss and Nancy Richey are the still-active members of the original Houston Eight) and youngsters who people the tour, and the organizers and merchandizers who run it.
Can the growth curve in attendance, revenues and prize money continue its upward spiral? Will Evert dominate totally, and if so what effect will this have? Do some new stars have to break through into the upper echelon for women's tennis to keep captivating the public fancy, as it has done against long odds? Will the loss of national television exposure this year because of poor ratings have a backlash effect on the live gate?
"I think this is a crucial year for us," says Wendy Overton, who joined the tour in 1972. "The girls are going to have to give a little more back to tennis, instead of taking all the time. We're going to have to give more of ourselves in practice, to build up some stars. Right now we have one star.
"We're playing for $100,000 a week, and a lot of people think we aren't worth it. We've got to prove them wrong. Everybody says that we don't have any depth because Chris and Evonne were always in the finals, but I personally don't think we're given enough credit down the line. There wasn't one really easy match in the first round here. Sure there are superstars, but there are lots of good, solid players, too."
Overton agrees that the problem is not so much lack of depth as the enormous gap in talent between Evert and the mass of women players. "It's not that we're not trying," she says, "but Chris is a phenom. You're not going to find another like her in 50 years."
Adds Julie Heldman, another original Slimmie who has researched the subject, "Evert may well be the best woman player of all time."
Overton makes an important point, "I think we have a lot of depth as entertainers . . . I think we're worth $100,000 a week, but it's hard to see how it can go up any more under present circumstances."
Certainly the Slims tour has not come such a long way without doing many things right. Women's tennis has been marketed with an intelligent mixture of slick promotion, glamour showcasing a sex appeal, tastefully exploited. In the details of presentation of their product, the women have beaten the male pros, 6-0.
The women have resisted the temptation to dilute their product for a quick buck. In an era that pro sports have embraced expansion as if the greatest tribute to America's first 200 years were the Louisiana Purchase, women's tennis has resisted. It learned from the decline in clout at the gate men's tennis suffered when it split into multiple groups.
"Sex appeal has always been an important ingredient in almost any entertainment spectacle," says Ted Tinling, British couturier who serves as Official Designer to the Slims circuit. He has for three years created day and night lines, the latter a series of "sparkle fashions" featuring rhinestones and other glitter for wear in evening matches.
The women pros are also given elaborate coaching and guidance in how to conduct themselves with the press and public. Practically every routine postmatch press conference is as interesting as the best of the week at a men's tournament, because the women are generally more at ease and open with theirthoughts, feelings, observations.
Women's tournaments have been staged with increasing smoothness over the years. There has been continuity of tour officials, and they have the players' respect. This has not been the case with the men, who have gone through cities, tournament directors, and promotional people as if they were flip-top cans.
Important, too, is the decision to have a sophisticated "Futures" circuit, open to everyone, from which up-and-coming players will filter into the main tour. Each week the bottom four players among the 32 in the Slims draws drop down to the "satellite" events, and the top four from the "Futures" are promoted for at least a two-week fling at the big time.
The "Futures" tournaments - organized by Gladye Heldman of Houston, who founded the Slims tour - now offer $20,000 a week in the prize money. Their most important feature is that they are open to anyone.
Julie Heldman sees these danger signals. "Players aren't learning how to win," she says. "Ten years ago there were lots of little tournaments; you could go and build your confidence. I'm afraid we're producing a generation of runners-up and semifinalists.
"Also, the type of tennis the women are playing is getting a little stereo-typed because all the tournaments are indoors, on fast courts. You don't get players with other styles, who act as super counterfoils."
Sue Barker, a slip of a lass with a forehand worthy of King Kong, disagrees. "I enjoy going for winners. That's the new style. Look at how hard Chmyreva, Stevens, Marita Redondo and some of the others hit the ball. They're gamblers. I think it's exciting to watch."
There is great opportunity for all aspiring women players. Francoise Durr, 34, recalled yesterday that she did not make the quarterfinals in any Slims even last year. "I had my worst year and made much more money than ever before."