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"A hard ride, but wonderful": 'Original 9' reflect on the WTA's first 50 years

  • Gill Tan

Seven of the 'Original 9' players who made professional women's tennis a reality are being honoured during Australian Open 2023, as the Women's Tennis Association prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary this June.

The nine trailblazers famously signed $1 contracts in 1970 to form the Virginia Slims circuit and three years later, the WTA was formed.

"We wanted to make it possible for any girl in this world, if she's good enough, to have a place to play," Billie Jean King, a pioneer of the group, told

"That's why we started the WTA three years later, we wanted to have one voice, we wanted to make sure we protected the players."

Rosie Casals agreed.

"I would say we made the right decision when we see what has happened, we're quite pleased about it," Casals said, while Kristy Pigeon added being part of the landscape-changing moment was "a total no-brainer."

"I feel very proud … we hoped that we would have a terrific effect, but I'm not sure we realised it would be as great as what it was," Australia's Judy Dalton, one of the Original 9, said. 

"I think we achieved that probably because of companionship and camaraderie, helping each other, because that's what we had to do. It was the only way we could do it – it was a hard ride, but it was a wonderful one. It was a very worthwhile one."

Five decades on, the player who hoists the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup on Saturday will be rewarded with a $2.975 million cheque. That's a far cry from the US$25,000 sum earned by Margaret Court as champion of the 1973 US Open, the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money.

"I think it's perfect," said American Valerie Ziegenfuss, one of the Original 9, when asked for her thoughts on the present state of women's tennis. 

"Can you get better than that amount of prize money and the conditions?"

The 73-year-old added that she was enjoying her first experience at the AO and being back in the company of her history-making peers.

Seven of the 'Original 9' met the press in Melbourne on Wednesday

"Our reunions are few and far between, but the last two years have been fabulous – we were inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame and we had a trip to Indian Wells," said Ziegenfuss.

And because the group is scattered across the world, some were kept apart due to border restrictions amid the pandemic.

"I haven't seen the other girls for eight years, so it's wonderful to be together," added Dalton.

"When the opportunity comes, I'm always willing to come here. I love to come see my gals, they are sisters to me," said Peaches Bartkowicz.

Joked the 157cm Casals: "Sabalenka, Azarenka – we passed them in the locker rooms, they're big!  

"It's fun to see where the game is, we enjoy watching what has happened in women's tennis and how it's grown and we think about way back when."

The American then added, referencing a slogan from Virginia Slims: "In the last 50 years, it really has come a long way, baby."

As for this year's contenders, Ziegenfuss reckons either Aryna Sabalenka or Victoria Azarenka could leave Melbourne as champion.

"I like Azarenka, I've always liked watching her play," said Australia's Kerrie Melville Reid, another of the Original 9. "I would love it if she won it, but I think Sabalenka – as long as she doesn't get nervous with her serve – could. Going to be one of those two, probably."

If Azarenka does capture her third major, following AO titles in 2012 and 2013, it would set a record as the longest gap between Grand Slam championships in the Open Era.

"I think it shows unbelievable determination on her part," said Dalton of Azarenka's longevity.

That the 33-year-old is a title threat reflects persistence and love for the game, said King.

"Being older she's probably appreciated more what's happening and to be the first to do that, that's a fun goal," added the American. "But when you're out there, you play one ball at a time if you're going to win … all of that other stuff comes into play after."

Azarenka's ascension to the final four has impressed the sport's legends this fortnight (Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, King, who won 12 Grand Slam singles titles during her illustrious career, is eager for women's tennis to continue growing. "The WTA has one voice, they need to use it," she said.

"We have to get to the young players – I'm very big on 'team', I think 'team' is how we grow the sport a lot," acknowledged the 79-year-old, who said she's enjoyed watching AO 2023 doubles coverage on television.

Casals agreed.

"Nothing lasts forever. I think women have to keep fighting for equality, recognition, acceptance – it doesn't just happen. Sometimes it can be threatened just like Roe v Wade, which we never thought would be overturned, so I think there's still a lot of work to be done," said the nine-time Grand Slam doubles champion.

"It's a matter of finding ways to grow together also with men's tennis, we need to grow the game from within. I think today's kids are much better about acceptance and working together so I hope it continues on the upwards swing."