WTA: Celebrating 40 Love and Counting

by Elisa Birnbaum

Originally published Fall 2013

At a time when there are serious discussions around the idea of merging the ATP and WTA tours, led by led by Roger Federer and echoed by former WTA CEO Anne Worchester, we thought it would be great, as part of the ONTENNIS “Women in Tennis” series, to re-visit a story from 2013 celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the WTA.

There are moments that define us so profoundly, they offer inspiration and opportunities unparalleled. Though moved by them immediately, it’s only with time and the benefit of reflection, that we gain a deeper perspective of their true impact. Such is the case with the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, an organization with a mission of enabling women tennis players to achieve their dreams.

The moment was honoured recently at a joint press conference with WTA chairman and CEO, Stacey Allaster, and tennis legend Billie Jean King, WTA’s visionary and founder. The throng of media had descended upon the well-appointed media room during the Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre to discuss the 40th Anniversary of King’s baby and her induction into the Rogers Cup Tennis Hall of Fame.

“We’re here not only to celebrate 40 years of the WTA but something that billie has done for her entire career, and that is the advancement and empowerment of women.”

- Stacey Allaster

“We’re here not only to celebrate 40 years of the WTA but something that Billie has done for her entire career, and that is the advancement and empowerment of women,” said Allaster to start off the conference. “She walks the talk that women need to support women.”

Indeed. When King founded the WTA, with the help of the “Original Nine”—Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman—she brought all of women’s professional tennis under the umbrella of one tour. Ever the multi-tasker, while playing matches, King was also building the WTA, stepping up to the “establishment”, advocating for equal prize money and taking the weight of the world on her shoulders when beating Bobbie Riggs in a match officially dubbed The Battle of the Sexes, forever remembered as a turning point in sports history.

The WTA’s rich and storied history set an empowered course for women tennis players and women athletes generally. And it seems only logical that an organization with such a powerful start would have within its DNA the capacity to grow exponentially. And it has.

As the largest professional sport for women, the WTA today is truly a global organization. In 1973, it had 14 events, mostly in the US, with $1 million prize money. Today the organization boasts more than 54 events in 33 countries, prize money totaling over $118 million and 2500 players representing 92 nations. Currently 10 different countries are represented in the top 10 players.

It’s a reality that demonstrates the women’s tour can be commercially successful in a highly competitive sports and entertainment industry, Allaster tells me when we meet later. “It also shows women can be strong business leaders,” she adds. “As the WTA tour and growth of the business matured, it transformed athletes along with it.”

1. Billy Jean King; 2. Rosie Casals; 3. Nancy Richey; 4. Kerry Melville; 5. Peaches Bartkowicz; 6. Kristy Pigeon; 7. Judy Dalton; 8. Valerie Ziegenfuss; 9. Julie Heldman

As for its future growth, its founder is clear: “We have a long way to go but I think women’s tennis is such a great leader not only in women’s sports but for all women globally,” offered King. WTA’s CEO, meanwhile, can’t help but be cognizant of the duty she bears: “We’re standing on the shoulders of great women who have given a lot to put us in this position,” she says. “My sole responsibility is to make sure that I leave the WTA in an even stronger position.” Toward that end, Allaster is proud of the fact that in 2014, for the first time they’ll have more events in Asia Pacific than any other territory in the world. And they just awarded year-end championships to Singapore. Part of a five-year agreement, it’s the largest championships deal in their history.

Of course, WTA’s commitment to the players remains priority number one. Its development programs, designed to support and promote the careers, health and safety of players, is second to none. Its many offerings include knowledge sharing, physiotherapy, nutritional counselling, media training and skills development. There’s also a mentorship program and something called Transitions, providing sophisticated education, training and career guidance to maximize player opportunities during and after their tennis career.

WTA’s strong focus on health is especially appreciated. “If it wasn’t for our physiotherapists we wouldn’t be here,” says Canadian player Gabi Dabrowski emphatically. “They keep us as healthy as we can be.” Her doubles partner agrees. “I can honestly say I wouldn’t be standing on the court this week if it wasn’t for Marlene,” says Sharon Fichman of her valued physiotherapist. She explains how after 15 days on the go, multiple time zones, flights, surfaces and balls, she’s beyond exhausted. “But Marlene was there with me until 11:30 last night, making sure I had every single treatment I needed. She’s the reason I could play.”

Dieticians are a real boon too, as is the new partnership with USANA. Not only does it give them peace of mind knowing the supplements they take are safe, it saves players a lot of money. “We’re professional athletes, we have to take care of our body and supplements are a big expense,” says Fichman. “The WTA goes out of their way to help as much as they can,” adds Dabrowski.

Bottom line: the WTA has proven one woman’s vision can have far-reaching resonance. “It was always Billie’s dream for any girl anywhere in the world, if she dreamt of playing professional tennis, she would have the opportunity,” says Allaster. “Now we have given young girls, around the world a chance to live that dream. This generation is living the dream. I’m living that dream.”

Truer words couldn’t be spoken by the woman who now sits at the helm of King’s creation. But the seeds of that job were first sown in Canada. “I’m a complete by-product of the sport development system in this country”, she offers, explaining it all began with a Fischer tennis racket, lessons at the Welland Tennis Club and a program offered by the OTA. “And I never left.”

Allaster’s first job was cleaning courts at the age of 12. She was a teaching pro at 16 and worked at the OTA for a couple of years before moving onto Tennis Canada, where she eventually became the tournament director. After 15 years at TC, Allaster decided it was time for challenges on the international stage. So she joined WTA as its president before taking on her current role.

Sometimes her life today feels surreal, she shares. “I really had to pinch myself,” Allaster says wistfully when asked how it felt to be sitting with King at the press conference, a woman who so significantly impacted her life and that of so many others. “I wouldn’t be in this job if it wasn’t for Billie and the Original Nine.”

Just another dream made possible thanks to a woman who would be (named) King.