This week, local tennis aficionados will have the chance to watch many of the best women’s tennis players in the world up close during the Berkeley Women’s $60,000 Challenge at the Berkeley Tennis Club.
The first year this tournament was held, in 2018, the winner was a passionate Florida resident named Sofia Kenin. Just over 18 months later, Kenin took the title at one of the sport’s prestigious Grand Slam events, the Australian Open, and by the end of 2020 was the highest-ranked American in the world.
A strong thread connects the Berkeley Tennis Club and the creation of women’s professional tennis. Fifty-one years ago this September, nine women’s tennis players and one zealous magazine publisher kicked off a revolution that changed the face of sports. Five of the 10 rebels had strong connections to the club.
The one you’re likely most familiar with is Billie Jean King, the global icon who won 39 Grand Slam titles, including a record 20 at Wimbledon. King is also renowned for her infamous 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” victory over Bobby Riggs.
In the summer of 1966, shortly after winning her first Wimbledon singles title, King and her husband, Larry, relocated from Southern California to the Bay Area so that Larry could commence law school at UC Berkeley. The two lived a short walk from the Berkeley Tennis Club, where King practiced frequently with another top player, San Franciscan Rosie Casals, and a promising junior from Danville, Kristy Pigeon. In 1968, King won her third straight Wimbledon singles title. She and Casals took the women’s doubles for the second year in a row. And Pigeon that year was the Wimbledon junior champion.
WHAT: Berkeley Tennis Club Women’s $60,000 Challenge
WHERE: Berkeley Tennis Club, One Tunnel Road, Berkeley
WHEN: Main Draw (32 singles, 16 doubles) — Tuesday, Sept. 28, to Sunday, Oct. 3. Qualifying tournament (32 singles) — Monday, Sept. 27, to Tuesday, Sept. 28
WHO: World-ranked women’s tennis players
INFO: Free admission on Monday, Sept. 27. Tickets $15 daily from Tuesday-Friday, Sept. 29-Oct. 1; and $20 from Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 2-3.
(Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the tournament.)
But hitting the ball well wasn’t the only thing on their minds. Before 1968, tennis had been an amateur sport. Players were restricted from earning prize money, instead compensated with random, under-the-table payments. It was hardly a lucrative way to make a living, King making barely $20,000 in 1967.
With tennis, at last, becoming an Open sport in 1968, prize money entered the picture. But as new tournaments flourished, the economic picture was hardly fair. King’s paycheck for winning Wimbledon in 1968: 750 British pounds, compared to 2,000 for men’s champion Rod Laver. And over the next two years, it only got worse. “We were being squeezed out by the men,” said King.
Parallel to these changes in tennis, what was happening in Berkeley during the ’60s greatly affected how King and many of her colleagues saw the world. As King writes in All In, her autobiography that was published last month, “In Berkeley, it seemed like everything in American life was being reexamined, including what it meant to be a woman and women’s roles in the workplace and society. I was questioning where I fit in too.”
Casals and Pigeon also were socially attuned. A lifelong San Francisco resident, Casals had come of age at Golden Gate Park, where she’d simultaneously play tennis and take in all the changes in culture and politics that were underway throughout the ’60s. “I went to Mills College in Oakland, later transferring to UC Berkeley,” Pigeon last year told journalist Steve Flink. “Both schools promoted huge feminist attitudes; I remember Betty Friedan coming to give a lecture.”
On the tennis front, the summer of 1970 proved the point of inflection. Each September, following the U.S. Open, two prominent tournaments took place in California. Los Angeles was the site of the Pacific Southwest Open. The Berkeley Tennis Club hosted the Pacific Coast Championships. A few weeks prior to the U.S. Open, the women learned that the L.A. tournament was offering the men’s champion $12,500 – and $1,500 for the women’s winner. Any woman who failed to advance to the quarterfinals would earn nothing.
Enter another woman with strong connections to the Berkeley Tennis Club. Gladys Heldman had first learned to play there in the late ’40s. In 1953, having relocated to New York, she launched World Tennis, a magazine that rapidly became the sport’s leading voice – not just on matches, but on tennis’ political issues. Heldman also cultivated many corporate contacts. Among the most notable was Joe Cullman, CEO of tobacco giant, Philip Morris.
Upset about what was shaping up at the L.A. tournament, King, Casals and several other women approached the business-savvy Heldman. A boycott was considered, but Heldman came up with a better idea. “She suggested they have a tournament of their own,” said Gladys’ daughter Julie, who was also a pro (and had spent the summer of 1967 practicing at the Berkeley Tennis Club). Gladys was about to move to Houston and rapidly organized a women’s professional tournament there. One ace up her sleeve came from the longstanding connection with Cullman: sponsorship from Philip Morris’ two-year-old Virginia Slims brand. Ambivalent as the players were about being sponsored by a cigarette company, they also knew it was their best path toward earning a livelihood. “We had done a deal with the devil,” said Julie, “but we had a tour.”
The $7,500 Virginia Slims Invitation was held Sept. 23-26 1970, at the Houston Racquet Club. King, Casals, Pigeon, and Heldman were joined by five peers – Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Kerry Melville, and Judy Dalton. The tournament was a tremendous success. Casals won the title. Wrote King years later: “I think women’s tennis received more media coverage in that one week than it had in the entire previous year.”
The Berkeley Tennis Club was the next stop. Total prize money for the women was originally set at $2,000 (compared to $25,000 for the men). But upon witnessing all the attention in Houston, Pacific Coast tournament director Barry MacKay offered to raise it to $4,400. Heldman countered by asking for $11,000. MacKay agreed. Nearly 30 years later, MacKay and King, working together for HBO during Wimbledon, shared a laugh as they recalled how King had approached MacKay on the steps of the Berkeley Tennis Club making sure he indeed had the $11,000. This tournament too went quite well, Richey beating Casals in the final.
Said Pigeon: “A lot of those original true feminists were missing the point by burning bras. In a way, they didn’t make nearly as many waves as we tennis players did. We demonstrated that as sportspeople we were as interesting as the men. Our competition was stimulating to watch, and we could pull the people in. For me, that’s a more powerful way of establishing equality.”
Pleased with the results of its foray into tennis, Virginia Slims that fall offered more than $300,000 in sponsorship dollars for a year-round circuit. One major reason it was able to provide so much backing was that beginning on Jan. 1, 1971, cigarette ads were banned from television. Having reached potential customers with its “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” campaign over the airwaves, Virginia Slims saw tennis as a natural way to reach them directly.
King proved the most successful competitor. By the fall of 1971, she’d become the first woman athlete to ever earn $100,000 in a calendar year, a total greater than all but five major league baseball players.
In the wake of what happened in the fall of 1970, women’s tennis was on its way to becoming the multi-million-dollar international circuit that makes it by far the most lucrative women’s professional sport. Gladys Heldman was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979. She died in 2003. King, Casals, and Richey also entered the Hall of Fame for their own singular achievements. And in July 2020, all nine of the women – dubbed “The Original Nine” – were inducted en masse.
And so much of it started in Berkeley.
A historian-at-large for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Oakland-based Joel Drucker’s stories have appeared in the New York Times, Tennis, Tennis Channel and Racquet. He’s been a Berkeley Tennis Club member since 1990.
Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Berkeley Women’s $60,000 Challenge.