As the sport of tennis became popular in England and an export to foreign lands during the colonial era, tennis nuts created national federations to administer and promote the game by staging "sanctioned" competitions, issuing rankings, and embracing a missionary agenda. These federations ultimately came under the umbrella of the International Tennis Federation, which soon became the ultimate authority in the amateur game, which was then the only game.
At the top of the federation pyramid in each nation were the Davis Cup and Federation Cup teams, along with the official national championships staged by each nation. The federations' operating expenses were covered by modest membership fees (you must be a member of the federation to play in sanctioned tournaments for rankings), donations, endowments, and whatever revenue the federations could generate at their showcase events.
The seeds of professionalism began to take root after the turn of the century, and they quickly flowered in such sports as soccer, baseball, and football. But the amateur establishment retained control in tennis, and the players who pioneered the pro game in tennis did so outside the purview of the ITF and its affiliates. When top players turned pro, they said goodbye to the lawns of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, and they went on barnstorming tours outside the amateur circuit. But inevitably the movement to allow pros to compete at the most important and traditional tennis events picked up steam, culminating in the genesis of the Open era in 1968. Although the ITF and its affiliates still controlled the Grand Slam event and operated a traditional circuit, they suddenly found themselves engaged in the competitive business of staging, managing, and promoting professional tournaments...
Wimbledon was poised to survive this transition relatively well for a curious and crucial reason: While the national federations in the three other Grand Slam nations owned and operated their national championships, Britain's federation, the Lawn Tennis Association, did not own Wimbledon. The event is the property of the club at which the event is staged, the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The AELTC supports the LTA with a voluntary contribution of about $10 million a year, and the federation is wise enough not to grouse about the setup.
Of course, the AELTC is run by OBN types, but they have always put the good of Wimbledon ahead of all else. Thus, the AELTC broke ranks with the ITF in the struggle to suppress professionalism and unilaterally declared in 1967 that it would allow professionals to play at Wimbledon. This was the turning point in the drive to establish professional tennis and, presented with a fait accompli, the other ITF constituents fell into line...
In the early 1960s, the amateur game of tennis was in a state of stagnation. One of the most perspicacious witnesses to that condition was Gladys Heldman, founder of the magazine World Tennis...
Heldman was a creative, intelligent Houstonian armed with a robust entrepreneurial spirit. But her "progressive" views posed an implicit threat to the amateur establishment, and as a woman she was at a distinct disadvantage when dealing with the conservative male-dominated heirarchy that ran the USLTA (back then, "Lawn" was still part of the U.S. Tennis Association's official name). She needed a male patron, and she found one in the future head of Philip Morris, Joseph Cullman. Both spirited tennis nuts, Heldman and Cullman were doubles partners, close friends, and like-minded entrepreneurs...
It did not take Heldman long to demonstrate her promotional proficiency. At the onset of the 1960s, the U.S. National Championships (also known as the U.S. Open) appeared to be moribund. Over the years, fewer and fewer foreign players, who were still subject to amateur regulations, had chosen to make the costly trip to New York in order to compete in the nationals at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens, even though it was one of the four gilded Grand Slam events.
Heldman came up with a brainstorm that she ran by the president of the WSTC, Augie Millang. She suggested that the club charter a plane to airlift eighty-five of the best international players to New York. Millang flew the idea by USLTA president Ed Turville, who was amenable to it. Heldman then raised the money for the plane by leaning on nine friends, each of whom wrote a $1,800 check to cover the cost of the charter. If the tournament could recoup that amount in profits, Heldman and her friends would be repaid their investments.
The next step was procuring living expenses for the players. Heldman decided that the cost would be $125 per player, and she wrote 130 letters to friends and acquaintances, asking each of them to sponsor a player. She also hit on the novel idea of selling corporate boxes and marquee seats, throwing a variety of social activities into the package. As a result, the U.S. Championships of 1962, in which Rod Laver became only the second man in tennis history to complete a Grand Slam, was an enormous success. The tournament raked in about $100,000 more than it had during the previous year, and Heldman and her fellow investors were paid back.
This was one of the early, key battles to establishing professionalism in tennis. Those struggles would grow increasingly savage over the next few years as a novel, energetic commercial spirit appeared in the tennis community, infecting all who came into contact with it. The establishment (the leaders of the ITF and its affiliates) disdained the "commercialization" of tennis, but they could not withstand the allure of the money, expanded public interest, and power promised by a vigorous professional game...
One of the establishment's greatest practical fears was the prospect of being held hostage by professional players who enjoyed unilateral freedom to play where and when they wished. The establishment wanted to protect its own status as the principal power and promoter in organized tennis. Thus, through much of the 1960s, as the inevitable professionalization of tennis picked up steam, the establishment kept fighting a rearguard action to retain control of the players, thereby ensuring that they would support ITF events.
The establishment's bargaining tools were its ownership of the pre-eminent Grand Slam events and the prestigious Davis Cup and Federation Cup competitions, and its status as the organizer and administrator of the game. For instance, the "official" national rankings were issued by ITF affiliates, and they were the last and only word on the matter since day one of tennis history.
Thus, in the 1960s, the establishment came up with guidelines that players had to observe to remain in "good standing" with their tennis associations. These ususally demanded that the players be available for Davis Cup duty and also compete in a modest number of domestic tournaments. Otherwise, they were free to do as they wished-- provided their actions did not threaten the well-being of the association. If the players refused to comply with the associations demands, they could be suspended and thus denied the chance to play in Grand Slam events. They would also be ineligible for inclusion in the all-important national rankings.
Most of the activist ITF types felt that if this system could be made to work, the establishment would reap the rewards of increasing commercialization without jeopardizing its power in tennis. The die was cast when the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club declared in 1967 that it would not ban professional players from Wimbledon. The USLTA fell into line with the AELTCC and promply accepted the offer of Philip Morris sponsorship of the first U.S. Open in 1968.
Joe Cullman, who had been elected chairman of the board of Philip Morris by then, immediately became the most powerful man in American tennis...
Cullman's sponsorship of the U.S. Open was such a success, and the lobbying efforts of Heldman on his behalf were so powerful, that the following year he was asked to be tournament director at Forest Hills. According to his contemporaries, Cullman's only condition for accepting the job was that he would not have to answer to the USLTA bigwigs who appointed him. He was far too intelligent and successful a man to put himself at the mercy of patrician volunteers who were largely ignorant of the rough-and-tumble world of big business. The USLTA acquiesced, and as a direct result, the 1969 U.S. Open was the first of our national championships to receive nationwide television coverage, on the CBS network. This deal was struck on the golf links by Cullman and the president of CBS. Presto, pro tennis was off and running in the new era, its future all but secured by a committment from national network television.
Suddenly, Heldman and Cullman were no longer outsiders but vital players in the emerging establishment of pro tennis. Cullman was in the forefront, but Heldman's own opportunity to leave her mark on the evolution of tennis occurred in year three of the Open era, 1970.
At the time, the general prize money ratio favored the men by roughly $2 to $1. But the figures varied, and they were to some degree relative. For instance, the prize money ratio favored the men by three to one at the U.S. Open, yet the winner's check for the female singles champion ($7,500) represented a bigger payday than the male champion enjoyed at an even more important tournament, Wimbledon.
When Billie Jean King won the 1970 Italian Open in Rome, she collected $600. Her male counterpart, Ille Nastase, took home $3,500. King and her fellow players decided that the disparity was unacceptable, and they decided to take matters into their own hands. A few months later the female pros called a press conference at the U.S. Open to protest the prize money ratio. They threatened to boycott the upcoming Pacific Southwest Open in Los Angeles, where the ratio in prize money would favor the men by ten to one.
The women received little support from the outside until Heldman stepped in and offered to promote an all-female tournament in Houston, offering $5,000 in prize money, with the winner receiving $1,500. The establishment was not quite sure how to react to Heldman's bold stroke. It might placate the women, but it also posed a potential threat to the nascent USTA women's tour...
Just three days before Heldman's tournament was to begin, the establishment moved against her. The USLTA announced that it would not sanction the event. If Heldman went ahead with the tournament, the players, officials, and even the host, Houston Racquet Club, could be banned from national affiliation. The establishment was playing its final hole card, implying that the women who played in Heldman's event would be banished from Grand Slam events and ignored in the official national rankings.
Heldman responded by creatively exploiting an interesting legal loophole. Instead of merely staging an unsanctioned tournament, she hired the players as employees-- offering each of the nine women in the field bona fide, one-week "personal service" contracts. Each woman was paid exactly one dollar for her services, but each of them would also compete for the prize money offered by the tournament. If the USLTA subsequently suspended the players, they would have an antitrust grievance that might very well hold up in civil court, where only the owners of major league baseball teams enjoyed a special exemption from restraint-of-trade regulations.
At that critical juncture, Heldman turned to an old ally and cashed in some of the chips she had accumulated. She asked Cullman to step in as a sponsor of her new event. Cullman probably would have gone to Heldman's aid out of friendship alone, but a tournament featuring just women-- particularly outspoken women fighting for equal pay-- was about as good a hook as anyone could imagine for a relatively new Philip Morris product, Virginia Slims cigarettes.
Cullman agreed to contribute the prize money and raised the pot to $7,500 in the process. Heldman then went public, unveiling the first Virginia Slims Women's Pro Tournament. At an elaborate press conference, the nine players signed their one-dollar contracts. Two of the women, Kerr Melville and Judy Dalton, were Australians. The other seven were Americans: Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Heldman's daughter Julie, Bille Jean King, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, and Val Ziegenfuss.
The very next day the American players were notified by telegram that they were suspended from the USLTA. They could be locked out of the Grand Slam events of 1971, and they would no longer be eligible for national rankings. This meant that the "official" U.S. number one player could conceivably be the eighth-best American woman. Nonetheless, the women showed great solidarity. Heldman's inaugural event was a resounding success. She quickly lined up two more events, one in San Francisco and one in Richmond, Virginia. The women players unanimously-- make that ecstatically-- voted to sign contract extensions that would be good until the end of the year. Legally, the establishment couldn't touch Heldman, and any move it made to lock her contract players (her employees) out of the circuit could be effectively challenged.
The Virginia Slims events were so well received and they attracted so much general attention as a socially progressive phenomenon that Heldman had little trouble putting together an "official" circuit of twenty-four events for 1971, each one offering at least $10,000 in prize money. She generously and wisely slotted the events around the Grand Slam championships, should the USLTA back off the hard line that it had taken on Virginia Slims players. She offered Cullman the title sponsorship to the tour, and he instantly accepted.
Early in 1971 the intransigent USLTA appeared to change its position and lifted the suspension on the U.S. players. With tennis booming, the three most prestigious Grand Slam events coming up, and the potential for a nasty legal case brewing, nobody really wanted war.
All in all, the timing that created the Virginia Slims circuit was perfect...
The Women's Tennis Association (WTA), like its counterpart among the men, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), began as a player's union created to give the pros a voice in how the game was run. But while the ATP ultimately wrested control of the world tour-- but not the preeminent Grand Slam events and the Davis Cup-- away from the traditional tennis establishment, the WTA's attempt to pull off a similar coup failed in 1992.
Although the WTA tour became a reality, the organization remained accountable to the Women's Tennis Council, an umbrella group under which all representatives of the game (the ITF, tournament promoters, and players) had a voice.
So the WTA Tour continues to process tournament entries, write rules, issue rankings, represent the players before the WTC, and create an elaborate support system for the players. It also acts as a go between for players and media...
The women's tour also has a heavy sponsor representation, a tradition established when Virginia Slims pretty much ran the whole shooting match. This trend was maintained when Kraft-General Foods, another division of Philip Morris, took over sponsorship of the world tour. The Virginia Slims people not only created women's professional tennis, they wrote the book on public and media relations...
The Courts of Babylon: Tales of Greed and Glory in a Harsh New World of Professional Tennis
Scribner; ISBN: 0684812967; June 1995, out of print usually available used from ABE Books or Amazon.com
Another excerpt from The Courts of Babylon: Tennis Tournament Draws
Find More Tennis Articles
TIME Magazine, April 1, 1946, p. 65:|
SPORT: What Price Amateurs?
When lanky Frank Kovacs, a buffoon but also a first-rate tennis player, was kicked out of amateur tennis in 1941, he hollered over his shoulder: "Amateur tennis stinks-- there's no money in it any more." He joined the ranks of the pros, then went into the army. In Miami Beach last week, a practising pro again, he gave his corrected version:
"I earned plenty as an amateur. You see poor boys come up without a dime, and in two or three years they are driving around from one tournament to another in big automobiles with their pockets full of money. Tournament committees make no bones about paying... from $200 on up for a tournament-- that's over and above expenses..."
Frank Kovacs seemed surprised at the commotion his statement raised in the nation's sports pages. "I thought everybody knew. The Pacific Southwest championships at Los Angeles put up the most... they paid [Bobby] Riggs $800 one time. It all depends on what country you're in. We do it with cash. It's wide open in Australia. They pay them off with checks there... if you're a good tennis player in Australia... they want to keep you for the Davis Cup team."
The U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, aware for years that many of its stars had been tennis bums, didn't quite know what to do about it. Kovacs had a suggestion: make all tournament players pros.
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