EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a two-part column series by Courier columnist Chris Howard on women in the world of tennis. Find part one in the sports section of The Daily Courier on Feb. 13, or online at dCourier.com.
Wikipedia states from Suzanne Lenglen’s book, “Lenglen was criticised widely for her decision to turn professional, and the All England Club at Wimbledon even revoked her honorary membership.”
Lenglen, however, described her decision as “an escape from bondage and slavery” and said in the tour program, “In the twelve years I have been champion I have earned literally millions of francs for tennis and have paid thousands of francs in entrance fees to be allowed to do so.... I have worked as hard at my career as any man or woman has worked at any career. And in my whole lifetime I have not earned $5,000 – not one cent of that by my specialty, my life study – tennis.... I am twenty-seven and not wealthy – should I embark on any other career and leave the one for which I have what people call genius? Or should I smile at the prospect of actual poverty and continue to earn a fortune – for whom?”
As for the amateur tennis system, Lenglen said, “Under these absurd and antiquated amateur rulings, only a wealthy person can compete, and the fact of the matter is that only wealthy people do compete. Is that fair? Does it advance the sport? Does it make tennis more popular – or does it tend to suppress and hinder an enormous amount of tennis talent lying dormant in the bodies of young men and women whose names are not in the social register?”
Interesting and especially in 1926.
During the same time-frame, Hazel Wrightman donated a Cup in 1923 (known as the Wrightman Cup) and created an annual women’s match - the U.S. versus Great Britain, which continued until the “Federation Cup”, now shortened to the “Fed Cup” was formed in 1963. Now all nations of women tennis players were and are invited to compete as a team toward an annual championship, very much like the men’s “Davis Cup” which began in 1900.
Finally in 1968 “Open Tennis” created the atmosphere of an all-encompassing tennis tour where all players could compete against one-another for financial gain. Unfortunately women were paid about 5 times less than men in prize money. The reason, women only played 2 of 3 sets and the men best of 5, but it was more than that, the organizers (mainly men) could get away with it.
The women rebelled and formed their own Tour called the Virginia Slims organized and run by Gladys Heldman from 1970 to 1972.
Billie Jean King was at the forefront of pushing equal pay for women, and she founded the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) in 1973 and low and behold the U.S. Open did just that in the same year...equal pay for women. Television rights for the WTA were negotiated in 1975. Now the USTA National Tennis Center is named in honor of her.
By 1976 Chris Evert had amassed over a million dollars in prize money and in 1982 Martina Navratilova earned over a million dollars in just one year. By 1982 there were 250 women playing professional tennis and currently over 2500 ranked players with hundreds of professional events to enter.
Today, players ranked in the top 100 in the world are making $300,000 and more as their ranking goes higher.
The game of tennis over decades has been a platform for women in sports to help show the world that they are just as important as men and should have the same opportunities and rights across the board. It’s been a long haul but it now seems to be going in the right direction.
Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 45 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.