In the four decades since Billie-Jean King announced the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association the world of female sport has changed almost as much as society itself.
Of course, those two trajectories cannot be separated, as women have become more empowered, so their professional opportunities have multiplied and a virtuous circle has been created.
There are many who, rightly, argue that there is still a long way to go, a glance at an average day’s national newspapers would see the coverage of women’s sport is far outweighed by its male counterpart.
Indeed, only last Saturday afternoon I Googled the outcome of the women’s French Open only to find the top entry was the previous days men’s semi-final results, without any mention of Serena Williams’s victory.
And while we must keep that inequity in mind, there must also be times when everyone sits back and reflects on the progress that has been made, which started when Billie Jean defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. In truth it wasn’t a great match, but it was a Great Match.
Now is one such occasion. The WTA is due to celebrate a landmark birthday next Thursday, 40 years to the day since Billie Jean chaired a meeting at the Gloucester Hotel in London at which it was thought she would announce a boycott of the 1973 Wimbledon Championships.
Instead she and 63 colleagues stepped blinking into the media spotlight having created their own professional tour.
The WTA was born and King and several other leading figures spent the rest of the decade crisscrossing the globe stitching together their calendar, with the aim of making the game a viable career for talented girls.
Chief among those visionaries was Birmingham’s Ann Jones, who had stopped playing tennis a few years before having won Wimbledon and two French Championships titles.
The WTA tour is in the Second City this week as the Aegon Classic takes place at the Edgbaston Priory Club where Kings Heath-born Jones is a life member.
Indeed, she’s rather more than a life member, her contribution to her club, her country and her gender was recognised last Sunday when the new, permanent Ann Jones Centre Court was opened. The 74-year-old is walking, talking history.
Set aside the enthralling nature of her Ladies Singles victory, from a set down, over King in 1969 and remember her part in helping establish the European leg of the women’s circuit.
“It started in America with the Virginia Slims circuit in 1971 – that was the first women-only event that improved the miserable prize money that was being offered for mixed events,” Jones recalls. “To gain some self respect they had to set up on their own and make sure they were viable.
"The series was a success in the States and both the WTA wanted to expand into Europe and the international federation wanted a part of what was a growing thing.
“We travelled around, one night Vienna, one night in Perugia, one night in Lugano to set up the European circuit. We split the German championship in two, the men stayed in Hamburg and the women moved to Berlin. The same with the Italian championship, the same with the Swiss.”
With that feat on clay it was on to England where Eastbourne ably supported Wimbledon but there was a need for another warm-up event. The LTA experimented with Chichester and Bournemouth before Edgbaston was suggested.
“It came here, I was still tour director and I came with it, we set it up, got it going with the bank of rhododendrons and the sunken centre court that flooded. The poor groundsman, who was called Terry, was up all night with a cover over the court and a commercial blower trying to dry it.
“Billie Jean came and was supporting the whole thing, I kept saying to her ‘I hope this court is going to be fit’. We played, everything was fine in the end and Billie Jean won it.”
It is a story that has been repeated around the globe and one, while not complete, that should be celebrated over the coming months.
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