• U.S.

Sport: Women’s Lob

3 minute read

You’ve come a long way, baby, To get where you’ve got to today.

—TV jingle

After decades of male domination, women’s tennis was getting nowhere. That was the contention of ten of the world’s top women players who staged the Virginia Slims Invitational in Richmond, Va., to open the first professional tennis tour ever organized exclusively for women. It was the first attempt to equalize the purses, publicity and playing conditions long enjoyed by the men players and long denied the women. “You’ve heard of Women’s Lib,” says one of the tour’s promoters. “This is Women’s Lob.”

The women had begun their counterattack by boycotting the Pacific Southwest championship three months ago because it offered a first prize of $12,500 for the men and only $1,500 for the women. Led by Mrs. Billie Jean King, the U.S.’s top woman player, eight of the leading ladies staged their own tournament in Houston. It proved such a success that Virginia Slims cigarettes put up $75,000 to help sponsor a cross-country tour. Since then the “Houston Eight” have more than doubled their ranks—and their fortunes. Responding to the rebellion, the Pacific Coast tournament in October upped the women’s purse from $2,000 to $11,000, while last month’s Embassy Tournament in Wembley, England, boosted its prize money from $2,000 to $10,000.

It’s about time, says petite Rosemary Casals, another U.S. star. “We expend the same amount of energy as the men. We practice as much. We play just as hard. We contribute our share to the success of a tournament.” Nonetheless, a few of the men players still regard the women as sideshow attractions. Says Arthur Ashe: “Men are playing tennis for a living now. They have families, and they don’t want to give up money just for girls to play. Only three or four women draw fans anyhow, so why do we have to split our money with them?”

To many a tennis fan, the answer is obvious: the women do draw the fans. The strategy and long rallies of a women’s match are often more interesting to watch than the stereotyped power game of, say, an Arthur Ashe. “The girls have all the shots the men do,” says Billie Jean King. “Maybe not as much muscle and power, but girls use a lot more tactics. That’s why people who play on the local level relate to us more than they do to a Rod Laver or a Pancho Gonzalez. Our game is more like theirs.” The Richmond tournament last month, which Mrs. King won with a final-round 6-3, 6-3 victory over Nancy Richey, was sold out before it opened. And with the first women-only tour booked for seven cities and $82,500 in prize money in the first two months of 1971, Billie Jean can rightly say: “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

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