SAPAKOFF COLUMN: WTA stars of today laud Billie Jean King and Original 9 tribute at Family Circle Cup celebration
All of the players signed up for the 2012 Family Circle Cup are too young to have seen Billie Jean King win the “Battle of the Sexes” or recall the zing of a Peaches Bartkowicz backhand.
Appreciation doesn't have a generation gap.
“It's a great idea, and especially for those nine women who were so inspiring for all of us,” No. 7-ranked Marion Bartoli said of the Family Circle Cup plan to honor the Original 9 with tonight's “40LOVE: A Night of Empowerment” exhibition match and celebration.
Among those joining the fun are Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Martina Hingis, Virginia Wade, John McEnroe and Aaron Krickstein.
The real stars are the honorees, Billie Jean King and the other eight players that took part in the birth of the women's professional tennis tour with a 1970 tournament in Houston. The group includes Rosie Casals, who won the first Family Circle Cup singles title in 1973, plus Bartkowicz, Judy Dalton, Julie Heldman, Kerry Melville, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey and Valerie Ziegenfuss.
“It's because they fought for us,” Bartoli said, “that we are here and we have the possibility to be where women's tennis is right now, which is the highest sport for women.”
It wasn't always that way.
The Original 9 originally signed $1 contracts with World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman.
That first total purse in Houston was $7,500.
Women on the 2012 WTA Tour will play for a total of $90 million in prize money. The Family Circle Cup winner gets $115,000.
Serena Williams said she is “thankful” for the Original 9.
“Women's tennis right now is doing amazing,” she said. “We're getting paid the same amount as the men. We have a shorter season than the men. I think they need to stand up for themselves right now because I think we've done everything that we could.”
King and Co. didn't do everything right. The early decades of the WTA Tour were marred by a tobacco company sponsorship that went way over the top, including a long-used official logo featuring a woman holding a tennis racquet in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
“Virginia Slims stepped forward for women's tennis when no one else would,” King has argued.
Among mainstream U.S. sports, only NASCAR has used the same excuse.
But from King and Casals to Navratilova and the Williams sisters, women's tennis has for 40-plus years led the way in fighting various rights battles.
Venus Williams took the lead in an international plea for equal prize money at Wimbledon and the French Open, finally winning in 2007.
“I would like to think anything is possible,” Venus said this week when asked about the Original 9.
‘Why we are here'
What started in Texas is a tour that includes events in 32 countries spread over six continents.
Bartoli, like many WTA players, has special regard for King, whom she considers a “very good friend.”
“She always emails me or texts me when I get a great win,” said Bartoli, eliminated at the Family Circle Cup on Thursday with a loss to Polona Hercog. “I think that's really sweet of her.”
The “Battle of the Sexes” took place in Houston in 1973, With a prime-time TV audience watching, King defeated the late Bobby Riggs, a colorful retired tour pro who burst onto the tennis scene in 1939 by winning the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles at Wimbledon as an amateur.
Bartoli has read a lot about the match that featured the Original 9 star and gave women's tennis more momentum.
“That's basically why we are here right now,” she said.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or via Twitter: @sapakoff.