At the U.S. Open earlier this month, Naomi Osaka used her platform to raise public awareness about systemic social and racial injustice in America, and she did it without needing to speak a word.
Along her path to a Grand Slam singles championship in New York, the 22-year-old tennis star, whose mother is Japanese and father is Haitian, wore a different mask over her nose and mouth prior to each of her seven matches.
Each mask bore the name of a different unarmed Black person — from Trayvon Martin to Breonna Taylor — who was killed in recent years during some kind of confrontation with police officers or others in various cities across the United States.
“I’m aware that tennis is watched all over the world and maybe there is someone that doesn’t know Breonna Taylor’s story,” Osaka, who identifies as Black and Asian, told reporters. “For me (it’s) just spreading awareness.”
The platform women in professional tennis have used to denounce a variety of societal issues has been evolving for decades. Its foundation was first laid 50 years ago by nine female players, including icon Billie Jean King, who risked their careers in an effort to gain equality with the men in the sport by starting their own professional tournament and, eventually, their own tour.
Men in professional tennis were making as much as 12 times more in prize money than the women in some tournaments, as pay discrepancy in the sport surged in the late 1960s. Men, from players to tournament organizers and sponsors, also held all the power in professional tennis. Women in the sport didn’t have any influence to bring about change.
So King, fellow Americans Rosie Casals, Peaches Bartkowicz, Nancy Richey, Julie Heldman, Valarie Ziegenfuss, Kristy Pegeon and Australians Judy Tegart Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid — dubbed the Original 9 — boycotted the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles, which paid the winner of the men’s tournament $12,500 and the winner of the women’s $1,500. Instead of playing, they united to hold their own event in Houston, the Virginia Slims Invitational.
The Original 9 signed token $1 contracts with magazine publisher Gladys Heldman and held up $1 bills for an iconic photo following their public announcement Sept. 23, 1970, in New York City. The move shocked the tennis establishment, which in turn refused to sanction the Houston tournament and threatened to blacklist its participants from Grand Slams and international events like the Fed Cup.
“There was a lot on the line,” said Casals, now a Palm Desert, Calif. resident. “Absolutely a lot.”
Understanding the risks, the women went through with the event anyway and became equality pioneers, with Casals winning the title that became the first step in ultimately changing the sport.
Progress, in some respects was slow, but five decades later, each generation since the 1970s has built upon what the Original 9 started, leading up to this year, when Osaka made her statement on the biggest stage of what has always been a predominantly white sport.
Until Serena Williams won the U.S. Open in 1999, only one Black woman, Althea Gibson in 1956, had won a Grand Slam singles title.
Since then, 34 majors, including 23 by Williams, have been won by Black women, who, in particular, are now among the leaders in the sport and are using their success to call attention to issues of racial, social and gender inequality and injustice.
“And most of them — not all of them — most of them are women of color,” said King, a 39-time Grand Slam champion in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. “They have this platform and use it. I’m thrilled because that was a big part of what we always wanted.”
‘We were willing to go for it’
The nine women had been discussing their move throughout the summer of 1970. The decision to hold their own event was not made abruptly.
They recruited every woman they knew who played competitive tennis, including Australian Margaret Court, who eventually finished her career with a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles. Court was one of many who initially declined to join the nine, unwilling to proceed with so much uncertainty. Several women were too frightened by the likely repercussions, Casals remembers.
“We were the only women willing to take a chance,” said Casals, nine-time Grand Slam doubles champion who reached the U.S. Open final twice in singles. “We were talking about doing something that was bold and that was going to make waves among the old establishment.”
Despite the fears of many, the nine women who took the risk were resolute in doing so.
“We were willing to go for it,” King said. “We didn’t care.”
“I knew we had to do something for the women’s game,” said Dalton, an eight-time Grand Slam doubles champion from Melbourne.
Julie Heldman was so committed to the cause that although she had an injured elbow she took the court and played a single point in the forbidden tournament to let everyone know exactly where she stood.
“We had to take a leap of faith,” Heldman said, “and I’m glad we did, obviously.”
For their efforts to be successful, the women believed they needed Julie’s mother, Gladys, to champion their cause. Gladys Heldman was the founder, editor and publisher of World Tennis magazine, and she had connections with the big tennis sponsors. One of them was Joseph Cullman III, the chairman of tobacco company Phillip Morris, who agreed to provide the $5,000 cost of the event.
Heldman also was a member at Houston Racquet Club and used her influence for the club to host the historical tournament. Heldman became perhaps the most influential tennis promoter when she signed the nine women to those $1 contracts.
“That very special day and what they did, and that signing 50 years ago, certainly was a huge step not only for the sport of tennis and sports, but I think women in general in addressing the social issues and challenges that we fight,” WTA Chairman Steve Simon said. “These principals of equality and opportunity were really set forth there.”
The Houston tournament proceeded without a hitch, and Casals defeated Dalton, 5-7, 6-1, 7-5, in a gripping final. With the win, Casals made $300 more than Stan Smith, the man who won the Pacific Southwest Championships in LA, which the women boycotted.
There were, however, severe repercussions. After the tournament, the women were suspended by the governing bodies in tennis, and Dalton and Reid, the two Australians, were stripped of the few sponsorships they had.
“They paid a nice little price for going against their association,” Casals said.
Within days of the conclusion of the Houston tournament, though, dozens of women from around the world wanted to join what the nine had started, Julie Heldman recalled.
That surge in support spawned a tour of eight events, the Virginia Slims Circuit, in late 1970. Though the United States Tennis Association started a women’s tour to compete with and squash the tour King and her cohorts founded, the movement for equality was already rolling. In 1971, the Original 9 were joined by more than 30 additional women for their 19-event tour, which became the first year-round women’s-only circuit.
King had always been a big fan of Althea Gibson, and what she had done for the sport, so King and Gladys Heldman made a point to reach out to several women of color to be a part of their movement. They were first able to successfully recruit Bonnie Logan, then Ann Koger and Sylvia Hooks.
“It was a big part of our goal,” King said. “I said any girl in the world. Any girl in the world, not just white girls.”
Some women felt uneasy about the title sponsor of the tour being a big tobacco company, but it was a minor detail, Casals said. Having a sponsor of that size was vital in progressing toward the ultimate goal of gaining equality in the sport.
“We thought about it, but it didn’t feel as though we were promoting cigarettes,” Casals said. “It felt like we were promoting women’s tennis.”
‘Look how it paid off’
In 1971, King made $117,000 to become the first female athlete in any sport to earn a six-figure income. Two years later, she beat Bobby Riggs in front of 90 million watching on television in the Battle of the Sexes and founded the Women’s Tennis Association.
The WTA has since achieved equal pay with the men’s association, and now offers 55 tournaments in 29 countries and $179 million in annual prize money. According to Forbes, nine of the 10 highest-paid female athletes in 2020 are tennis players.
More important than just the money, King says, is the equality that has been achieved in the sport and the platform the WTA now provides.
“Because when we got equal prize money, for instance, in the majors,” King said, “it’s the message that it sends out to the world. …that we get the same as the men.”
Many of the Original 9 have since established foundations to advance the rights of women and bring about racial diversity in tennis. King said that the collective efforts of the group were always meant to aid the future of women’s tennis, to lay the foundation for generations of players to build upon and eventually have the grand opportunities that for a long time did not exist for women in the sport.
Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were among the first to build on that foundation with their legendary rivalry in the late 1970s and ‘80s. Evert was the first female player to exceed $1 million in career earnings and Navratilova was the first to earn $1 million in a single season.
“All these women were way ahead of their time,” Navratilova told the Associated Press. “They took a huge, huge chance. Look how it paid off.”
Navratilova, who won a record nine singles titles at Wimbledon, has for decades been an outspoken advocate for racial and gender equality and for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
Venus Williams, the first Black woman to be ranked No. 1 in the world, penned an op-ed in the London Times in 2006 that called for equal pay at the iconic Grand Slam event. Three decades had passed since the Original 9 took their stand. The following year, after Williams won the tournament for the fourth time, she finally became the first woman to receive pay equal to the men’s singles champion.
Serena Williams, Venus’ younger sister, has been among the most passionate advocates for racial and social justice. She often tweets about such causes, and in 2016, she used the moments after winning Wimbledon to speak publicly about the death of Philando Castile, an unarmed Black man fatally shot by police in Minnesota days earlier.
Earlier this month at the U.S. Open, Williams shared her appreciation for the first group of women who, 50 years ago, stood up for what they believed was right.
“Sometimes you need someone, or a group of women, strong people, to stand up,” Serena Williams said, according to the Associated Press. “They were standing up for the future generations, and that takes a lot of humility and a lot of courage. I’m greatly appreciative.”
In June, just days after George Floyd died in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, 16-year-old tennis phenom Coco Gauff used her platform to speak out against racial injustice at a Black Lives Matter rally in her hometown of Delray Beach, Fla.
Canadian Bianca Andreescu, who won the U.S. Open last year at 19, penned an open letter to the Original 9 earlier this month, thanking them for opening the door for the many in the sport who followed after them. Her letter acknowledged the considerable sacrifices the women made to make the sport what it is today.
Women of the Century: Billie Jean King is a champion for sports, women, equal pay, and more
Tennis legend Billie Jean King uses her fame to champion women on and off the court, and fight for equal pay, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice.
“I’d like to think that maybe other women along the way would have done the same thing,” Andreescu wrote, “but the point is, you took the biggest leap, you did it first, and your generation has inspired mine to continue fighting and striving for change.”
All these years later, King, Casals, Dalton and Heldman see new battles worth fighting today. They see continued racial, gender and other forms of ongoing discrimination in the world. They also see many of the women in tennis who recognize these issues and have a desire to use the influence they now have to bring about change.
On Sept. 12, after Osaka — who was born in Japan but grew up in the U.S. — defeated Victoria Azarenka, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, in the U.S. Open final, she was asked courtside by a television reporter about the message she wanted to send with the seven masks.
“Well, what was the message that you got?” Osaka quipped, as the world watched. “That was more of the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”
The platform that was provided for a female tennis player to speak her mind on such an issue, to make a plea for systematic change, and to actually be heard, on a global stage, is precisely what King says the Original 9 had once hoped for.
“They’re living our dreams,” King said.
Andrew John covers sports for The Desert Sun and the USA TODAY Network. Find him on Twitter: @Andrew_L_John. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.