Women`s tennis celebrates 40th birthday

Women`s professional tennis, which started with a 7,500-dollar event, and with nine unlikely revolutionaries at its heart, celebrates its 40th birthday.

Last Updated: Sep 24, 2010, 13:15 PM IST

Paris: Women`s professional tennis, which started with a 7,500-dollar event, and with nine unlikely revolutionaries at its heart, celebrates its 40th birthday.

From its humble start, the women`s game had grown to an 85-million dollar business by the end of 2009 and made household names of Venus and Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova and Maria Sharapova.

But despite their long fight for equal prize money at the sport`s four marquee Grand Slam events, concerns remain over whether or not fans get value for money.

In an age when tennis rivalry has been dominated by the men`s game in general - and the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal battle for supremacy in particular - the women`s game is still searching for a similar compelling story.

Way back in 1970, nine players, known as the Original 9 and led by Billie Jean King, signed symbolic one-dollar contracts with the late Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis publications, to compete in the newly-created Virginia Slims Circuit.

On September 23, 1970, King, joined by Rosemary Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss, and Julie Heldman, decided to participate in the inaugural 7,500-dollar Virginia Slims of Houston event.

By 1971, and with 20 events on the calendar, King became the first female athlete in history to pass the six-figure mark in single season earnings.

"When the nine of us signed one-dollar contracts with Gladys, one of our goals was to create opportunities for new generations," said King.

"We wanted to make sure that any young girl, if she was good enough and if she wanted to, would have the opportunity to make a living playing tennis. Now, 40 years later, we are seeing our dreams come to life."

The WTA Tour was founded following a meeting held during the 1973 Wimbledon Championships at the Gloucester Hotel in London, which united all of women?s professional tennis into one Tour.

By 1980, there were more than 250 professional women tennis players competing all over the world in the WTA?s 47 events with total prize money of 7.2 million dollars.

During the 1980s, Navratilova became the first woman to earn more than one million dollars in a single season.

By 2005, the WTA struck a six-year, 88 million dollar deal when Sony Ericsson and by 2009, the WTA total prize money had grown to 85 million dollars.

By 2007 both the French Open and Wimbledon had agreed to offer equal prize money.

But on many occasions, the spectacle served up by women players had sparked criticism.

At Wimbledon in 2009, Venus Williams demolished world number one Dinara Safina 6-1, 6-0 in a 51-minute semi-final demolition, the most one-sided semi-final in 40 years.

Just days later, Federer won his 15th Grand Slam title beating Andy Roddick in a five-set thriller which lasted more than four and a quarter hours.

Safina`s defeat attracted more attention as she was the world number one at the time.

"Are you trying to be down on women`s tennis?", Williams snapped at a journalist who said that the Centre Court mismatch was embarrassing to the women`s game.

"I think women`s tennis is fantastic. I would never be down on it."

Bureau Report