Women's tennis tour: 10 years old but no one's counting

If there were any justice, the players at this year's Avon Championship of Houston would have paused for a moment to remember the summer of 1970, when eight of their own came here to participate in a hastily arranged tournament that ultimately changed the face of women's tennis.

Unhappily, there is little justice. so the women went right on smashing forehands in hope of collecting part of the $150,000 prize money. They let the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the modern women's tennis tour slip by without even a cake to mark the occasion.

Rosie Casals, who won that first tournament and is still playing today, says: "The younger players are just not aware of how al of this started. I don't think they'll ever understand what some of the players went through, for them to have what they have. It's a little like your father trying to tell you what it was like to live during the Depression or the war. It's hard to comprehend if you weren't there."

Perhaps the event would have been better appreciated if the 32 players in last week's field had been made to compete for the same prize money offered at the original tournament -- $7,200, the largest purse ever offered up to that time.

The players' appreciation might have been heightened further if they had been made to play for the prize money offered at the event from which the original eight defected to come to Houston. the pursue at the Pacific Southwest tournament was $1,500 for the women; at the same tournament, the men played for 12 times that amount.

It was that sort of inequity that prompted the eight players, led by Billie Jean King, an upset winner over Martina Navratilova in this year's event, to propose a boycott of the tournament. but gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine and a ranked player, suggested an alternate tournament instead.

Heldman quickly lined up the Houston Racquet Club as a site, then sought and won sanctions from the Texas Tennis Association and the Houston Tennis Association.

Her biggest break, however, came after she talked with Joe Cullman, president and chairman of the board of Philip Morris. The company had sponsored the television coverage of Forest Hills, and Cullman was chairman of the US Open. Heldman offered to call the tournament the Virginia Slims Invitational. Cullman gladly consented and the circuit was launched.

The slims people conducted the tour for seven more years before parting company with the Women's Tennis Association. Avon, which had been conducting a "Futures" tour for two years, in 1977 and '78, stepped in last year to sponsor the entire works.

In retrospect, it's easy to see that women's tennis has made up a lot of ground in the decade since it first began to organize. At that initial Slims tournament, a Houston sports writer remembers calling the Houston Racquet Club for information and being told that it didn't want any publicity, since the spectator seats were open only to club members.

Needless to say, that has changed. The public now flocks to women's tennis. Through the first six Avon tournaments this year more than 240,000 people cam through the turnstiles. Purses range from a low of $125,000 to a high of $150, 000, with the championship event in New York offering $250,000.

That sort of prize money was only a dream in 1970. "We had an idea that it could turn out to be something a lot bigger than an eight- woman tournament," Casals says. "We felt women had something to sell to the public. It was a matter of time and exposure and getting money behind you."

"So, without Virginia Slims becoming involved with the kind of money that they put into women's tennis, I don't think women's tennis would be here at this point," she says.

Ann Kiyomura was in the first generation of new players to take advantage of the new women's professional tour. "I was pretty lucky in my timing," she says. "When I graduated from high school in 1973 I knew I would be able to go out on the tour. I knew if I didn't do well I could go back to college. My parents always talk about how I was born at the right time. If the circuit hadn't been there, I'd probably be a homemaker now."

The lure of fame and big money continues to draw young women to the tour, and Avon shows every sign of continuing its sponsorship of the tour. Barring unforeseen developments then, the future of women's tennis seems secure. Casals agrees: "The image of women's tennis as a fine sport will continue to row."

Kiyomura says, "There's so much depth on the tour today that we can still go a long way, and if we continue to get the goo players, then we'll be in fine shape."

So it's into the second decade with still more of the promise to be fulfilled. Maybe on the 20th anniversary someone could send some flowers.

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