From Billie Jean King to Ann Jones, journalists and historians explain their place in the sport’s history
History has a way of repeating itself. This year, it began with an enduring legacy of female tennis and women’s equality through its 30th anniversary. But those who are still unsure of what it all means should be reminded that in 1970, when the Fabulous Five were founding stars of women’s tennis, it was the end of an era.
Americans Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Bebe Kipsang, Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova called themselves the Original 9, after their 9th US Open match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, won by the five-time champion and women’s tennis pioneer Chris Evert.
Ann Jones, a then 57-year-old coach of Navratilova, said: “These were the six women who started women’s tennis, the Original 9. They did this for women’s sake, because they wanted to get their game as close to the men’s as possible. They were so confident in that game that they could play the men.”
Evert, among the most dominant forces on the tour, but also openly gay, will always remain an outsider in the sport. It was in 1978 that she won her first of seven titles at Wimbledon, beating Andrea Jaeger. For years, the world tennis governing body would not even acknowledge her on court because of her sexual orientation. Evert was mocked by fellow players, who thought she was spending too much time on the dance floor. She refused to hide or to be treated as second class, and she fought to expand women’s rights.
These are three of a newly released series of TV ads highlighting the contributions of female stars that were shunned by the world’s premier tennis tournament for many years. “Much of what we had to go through as women in tennis was to gain acceptance,” Evert says in one commercial. “The men on the tour were treated differently.”
Women might have had another All-American to do the same if Ann Jones hadn’t had a stroke in 1968. Doctors feared she would never play again, but she refused. As women’s tennis also developed, the constant crush of verbal criticism took its toll, but even with her limited mobility she refused to surrender. She became “the unofficial mayor of women’s tennis”, according to Janine Sunter, author of Beverly Hills, It Wasn’t the Women’s World Until Billie Jean”. Jones died on 10 May, aged 87.
In another TV ad, Navratilova, a 23-year-old student from Moldova before becoming one of the sport’s best players and best friends, kicks a ball past 10 male players and gets a kick in as King lets the ball roll past her. She tries to play it off by telling them “nothing you don’t want for me, I want for you,” but it’s a sign of the confidence that those who had earned the admiration of the world for their determination would find hard to ignore.