Remembering the ‘Original 9’ on International Women’s Day

Each year, on March 8th, the world celebrates women–International Women’s Day. It is one day when women visibly get their due around the world–in terms of acknowledgement and their contribution to society at large. The world of sports, too, has had women who have been pioneers not just in the sporting arena but also outside of it, to make the domain more inclusive. The Original 9 took up the mantle to bring about this change–rather, equality–in tennis, over 50 years ago, in 1970.

Americans Billie Jean King, Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosie Casals, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Australians, Judy Tegart Dalton, and Kerry Melville Reid were the nine players who banded together to form what was then considered to be an anti-establishment outfit to claim pay parity for themselves. They boycotted official tournaments and created their own tour to protest the wide gulf in prize money between men and women. As outrageous as the perception was about the teaming up of these nine women was, the backlash was just as swift.

The tennis establishment’s threats of sanctions against these players then also brought out the irony of the time. Two years after the sport had been thrown open to all–the Open Era, so to speak–the women were still on the outside looking in and had to resort to a near-separation from the establishment in order to make their case heard.

Across the years, the incidents that led to the formation of the Original 9 and the eventualities that occurred thereafter–including the formal separation of the women’s tour and the setting up of the WTA a couple of years later, in 1973–have been told and retold on so many occasions with rightful heft added to the initial significance of the act.

Talking about what the Original 9 sought to accomplish and what changes it brought to tennis as an institution, King said, “In a time, where defying the odds and having a voice is more important than ever, it’s extremely rewarding to see the impact the Original 9 made 50 years ago can still be felt around the world today. There were three things we wanted for future generations. First, that they would have a place to compete. Second, that they would be recognized for their accomplishments, not just their looks. And, finally, that they could make a living playing professional tennis. Today’s players are living our dream.”

And in today’s–the post-pandemic–context, the importance of the Original 9’s achievement has also been elevated in the harsher realities the tennis world has had to face.

Cutbacks in prize money have been the norm since the tour and the tournaments have been forced to pick up the pieces following the five-month stopping of play between March-July 2020 due to Covid-19. But regardless of how detrimental the players perceive these reductions to be to their sustenance on the circuit, they aren’t voiceless anymore.

In that, the Original 9 have gone beyond their slated objectives. Them standing up for the cause of the women players has meant that if at any point, the present-day players feel that biases are running against them and they’re being discriminated against, they have an actual page in the sport’s history to borrow from. So as to lay new ground for the future generation to succeed and thrive in.

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