Women's tennis is alive and well and resting on the shoulders of Tracy Austin, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Pam Shriver. As they go, so goes the women's game. And the dominant thread that weaves through those five names is the fact that four of them are American and the fifth, Navratilova, will soon become an American.
Whenever critics complain that American dollars are threatening to monopolize the sport, they first point to the women. With the exception of Japan and Great Britain, an overwhelming number of women's tennis events are in the United States.
While some of the men may lament the presence of our Colgate Grand Prix after men's events being held at Madison Square Garden for three consecutive years, the women have no such qualms. They take the money where they can get it.
It was not always this way. As little as four years ago, it was King, Evert, Evonne Goolagong and Virginia Wade who turned on the sponsors. But since then the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) has matured and is by far the most formidable force in the movement. The first president -- you guessed it -- was Billie Jean King. More than any other player, she engineered the drive to give women's tennis a place of its own.
That her fellow players can thank King more than anyone else is no accident. It all started with a partnership between Gladys Heldman, King and Virginia Slims cigarettes -- in the early '70s. Marlboro cigarettes sponsored the first U.S. Open, in 1968. It soon become quite obvious that if the women were to make it, they would need their own sponsors.
Phillip Morris just happened to be putting Virginia Slims on the market at that time. Gladys Heldman was then editor and publisher of World Tennis magazine and a good friend of Joseph Cullman III, chairman of the board of Phillip Morris. The Virginia Slims slogan, "You've come a long, way baby," was just the right theme to bolster the fledging women's pro tour.The marriage was a natural.
But as the men spread their wings and made their circuit worldwide, the women ran into all sorts of obstacles. Chief among them was the predominantly "macho" attitude towards sports, in general. Not being able to change this drove the women to do two things: (1) play in America where attitudes were more liberal and (2) "piggyback" on the men (play where the men play, for a small piece of the prize money).
Some women, of course, didn't mind this at all -- especially playing in America. Ilana Kloss, ranked No. 35 on the WTA computer and its secretary, says, "I don't like Europe. I can't speak all those languages and I don't like the clay courts." She is not alone. In fact, this attitude more than any other caused the women to take to World Team Tennis in a big way.
Socializing was always a major problem for the women, especially in Europe. Team Tennis at least gave them a chance to be "at home" three months a year. Also, the European, South American and Asian crowds wouldn't come out to watch them in sufficient numbers to attract sponsors.
At one time or another, Wade Goolagon, Navratilova, King, Evert, Betty Stove and Rosie Casals were all playing WTT at the same time. With that kind of talent the fact that Team Tennis didn't survive is proof that it was an idea whose time had not come.
However, the Tracy Austins and Pam Shrivers of today are the products of the trials and errors of the '70s. Television is the name of the game now and pigtailed Tracy is without a doubt the women's biggest attraction. Her exposure and popularity is due in no small measure to the approach taken by the WTA since 1974.
In order to qualify for WTA membership, a player must be ranked in the top 100 or have earned $10,000 on the women's circuit in the past 12 months. Dues are $350 a year and there are even associate memberships for $75 a year that, while not entitling a player to a vote, nevertheless qualifies one for life, health and disability insurance for $520 a year.
The WTA is now so strong that there is no crying need to "piggy-back" on the men anymore. Four years ago, Billie Jean talked in terms of parity with men when bargaining with Wimbledon over prize money. Now the Avon Co. has taken over from Virginia Slims as the sponsor of the women's tour. With that move, came security, confidence and, most important, a coherence that network television found most appealing. The fact that Virginia Slims was less than happy with the divorce has not seemed to bother the WTA hierarchy at all.
All this success has brought ancillary benefits, as well. It has sprouted America's first women sports lawyer, Sara Kleppinger, of the Washington firm of Dell, Craighill, Fentress and Benton, to attend to the needs of its many women clients. Women tennis players now do TV commercials. And there is even a woman player, Betty Stove, on the committee of management of the International Tennis Federation (she represents The Netherlands). That alone is astounding.
Shriver, a 17-year-old finalist in last year's Open, gave me an inkling of things to come with a comment about turning pro. She waited until she was 17 not because she wasn't good enough, but "because my parents were a little worried about me making so much money so soon. I wanted to turn pro two years ago but they said no."
Austin, at age 16, will gross more than $500,000 this year. While she has "come a long way baby," she can profusely thank Billie Jean King for paving the way.