Thursday 21 February 2013
As the Women's Tennis Association, fondly known as the WTA, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, Wimbledon.com looks back at its origins...
As Kimiko Date-Krumm has demonstrated, there is no reason to fear your forties. For Billie Jean King, and for everyone who cares about women's tennis, there are a couple of important fortieth celebrations this season.
If 1973 was the year that King was involved in 'The Battle of the Sexes' circus against former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs - that was no casual Adam against Eve tennis match - it was also the season when she helped to found the women's tennis tour.
So the Women's Tennis Association hits the big four-oh this year, and the WTA, proud at what has been accomplished over the past four decades, have planned a series of events at tournaments across the world with a commemorative 'Forty Love' campaign which will feature players from the past and present generations.
One of the celebrations will be a gathering of former world No.1s during the summer's Championships at Wimbledon. "Guided by the leadership of Billie Jean King and together with four generations of iconic ambassadors, the WTA is proud to have evolved as the global leader of women's professional sport," said Stacey Allaster, the chairman and CEO of the WTA. "The ability to offer more than 100 million dollars in prize money at the WTA's 54 events and four Grand Slams in 33 countries is a testament to those who believed in Billie's vision."
Serena Williams (pictured above) regained the No.1 ranking this week, which Allaster thought would help the WTA celebrate turning 40. "As we celebrate 40 years of the WTA this season, it seems fitting to have Serena, one of the sport's all-time greats and global icons, return to the world No.1 ranking."
Williams and her sister Venus have often spoken of how much this generation of female players owe to King. Maria Sharapova will also be cheering loudly for King and the WTA this season: "Having the opportunity to be part of the cherished history and growth of women's professional tennis is very humbling. Each week we play for millions of tennis fans around the world, and to see the sport getting even stronger is inspirations for all of us."
Let's also take a moment or two this year to recall what happened at the Houston Astrodome in 1973. This was entertainment. But it was also more serious than that. As ESPN once put it, King was "instrumental in making it acceptable for women to exert themselves in pursuits other than childbirth". Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon champion, who was at the time of 'The Battle of the Sexes' was in his mid-fifties, had talked some trash beforehand: "I'm playing Billie Jean King for all the guys who are gonna get married, whose wives won't let them play poker on a Friday night or go fishin' on the weekend. I've gotta do it, an old 55-year-old guy with one foot in the grave. There wouldn't be any problems in this world if women had stayed in the kitchen and in the bedroom. No broad can beat me."
King and Riggs had a live audience of 30,000, and an armchair audience of millions. Defeat for King would have been a setback for women's tennis, allowing male chauvinists the chance to belittle the WTA.
Riggs arrived on a rickshaw pulled by six showgirls (his "bosom buddies"), while King swept in on a Cleopatra-style gold litter. On stepping down from the litter, King presented Riggs with a little brown piglet as a tribute to his male chauvinism, accepted his gift of a giant candy sucker, and then beat him in straight sets.
Look back at 40 years of the WTA, at the tennis, the champions and the storylines, and at the introduction of equal prize-money at the Grand Slams. King's victory over Riggs is more than a footnote in that narrative.
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