Julie Heldman helped open up women’s tennis
Julie Heldman will turn on the TV set often the next two weeks. At home in Santa Monica, she will watch, as always, with nostalgia and amazement, as the U.S. Open tennis tournament unfolds.
“Every shot, they hit all out,” she says. “I marvel at that. Every shot, they just close their eyes and hit it 100 miles an hour.”
Her perspective is valuable, even though, in her day, the shots weren’t moving 100 mph. Heldman is 68, hasn’t been back to the Open since she last played in it and, with a shoulder injury that painfully ended her career, lost badly in the first round.
That was 1975. Much has changed about the U.S. Open. Heldman was there when it wasn’t a massive event in a massive stadium, generating massive profits.
She was once ranked No. 5 in the world. She won 22 pro titles and made it to three Grand Slam tournament semifinals, failing only to get that far at Wimbledon, where she made the quarterfinals. In a 14-year pro career, she beat legends Billie Jean King four times and Margaret Court twice.
“But they beat me back a lot more,” she says.
At 14, she played in the U.S. championships, forerunner to the Open, and lost to King.
“She was two years older, and born to play on grass,” Heldman says.
Two years later, in 1962 at age 16, she again played in the tournament, and this time, found herself in the middle of history. It would not be the first time.
Her mother was Gladys Heldman, who once played doubles with Althea Gibson. Gladys Heldman was the leading tennis advocate of her day. She started a one-page mimeographed newsletter that, in 1953, grew into World Tennis magazine. For years, it was the sport’s most prominent publication.
Gladys Heldman got things done, although seldom with soft-spoken charm.
“My mother had to be totally in charge,” Julie says.
In 1962, the U.S. championships were foundering. It was a major event, to be sure, and Rod Laver was about to win the first of his two calendar-year, Grand Slam sweeps.
But many of the game’s big stars were staying in Europe for events there that paid much better. Officials asked Gladys Heldman to help. She not only helped, she nearly took over.
“She got on the phone, like she always did,” Julie says, “and called friends and friends of friends.”
Soon, she had provided a chartered jet from Europe, nice housing with friends for some players and fancy hotels for others. Suddenly, the U.S. championship was worthy of its major status, and it made enough money that all of Gladys Heldman’s friends who had kicked in were repaid.
Then, the tournament officials kicked Gladys Heldman out.
“She was pushy,” says her daughter, “and full of ideas. Also Jewish.”
It would not be the end of tennis history and Gladys Heldman. Again, her daughter was right in the middle.
At the 1970 U.S. championships, three star women players — Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey and King — approached Gladys Heldman. They complained that another big upcoming tournament, the Pacific Southwest in Los Angeles, had men’s purses eight times higher than the women’s.
A boycott was discussed, then the creation of a separate tournament. Heldman, in the midst of moving her family from New York to Houston, agreed to put one together. In only a few weeks, she did just that.
One of the calls she made was to a top official at Philip Morris tobacco, Joe Cullman. The Virginia Slims of Houston was born.
Threats came from tennis’ ruling body that any women who played in the tournament would be suspended. Nine defied that, including King, Richey, Casals and Gladys Heldman’s daughter. Those, plus Valerie Ziegenfuss, Kristy Pigeon, Peaches Bartkowicz, Judy Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid, became part of history, known to this day as the Original 9.
An injured Julie Heldman played only one point and lost it. That made her an official party to the action. Then the eight-woman tournament draw took place.
“My opponent for that one point was Billie Jean,” Julie says.
The tournament paid its bills and doled out decent prize money. After it ended, they held a spaghetti dinner at the Heldman home to determine what came next. Gladys Heldman was put in charge, a tour schedule, the Virginia Slims Tour, was to be put in place and the tobacco sponsorship would stay on.
“We had our own tour,” Julie Heldman says. “We were proud that we had stood up for something. We also had sold our soul to the devil.”
All those cigarette logos didn’t quite seem consistent with an athletic message. But the bills were being paid.
The Virginia Slims Tour became the basis a few years later for what is now the WTA Tour. Women’s tennis was off and running. No need for Helen Reddy to tell them to be strong, to be invincible.
On Sept. 20, 1973, a crowd of 30,472 in the Houston Astrodome and a worldwide TV audience of 90 million watched King beat senior star Bobby Riggs in the much-hyped Battle of the Sexes. Women’s tennis had roared.
The first Grand Slam to award equal prize money to men and women? The U.S. Open in 1973.
In the next two weeks, much of this will come rushing back to Julie Heldman. After tennis, she “tried to find other worlds,” and did so, as a mom, a corporate lawyer and an executive in a family eyeglass company. Gladys Heldman died in 2003.
The pride of a successful tennis career never quite goes away, and Julie Heldman is writing her memoirs now to capture that. Certain to be mentioned will be a nice sidebar to those historic days of women’s tennis.
“Two weeks before Billie played Bobby Riggs,” she says, “I played her. And I won.”
Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @dwyrelatimes
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