Brooks Smith recalls a big tennis event.
Brooks Smith has been rediscovering Richmond’s sports history and Brooks recently, well this past weekend, we have the French Open and you have tennis on the brain today.
Smith: I do indeed. And you know in these days of megastar professional athletes it’s hard to imagine that the so-called Open or professional tennis circuit began just a couple of decades ago in 1968. Before that, all the major tournaments were amateur only. But in 68-69, those early years of professional tennis, there were some gross inequalities between purses on the men’s and women’s sides. In fact, the purse for a men’s champion winner might be eight times higher than for a woman. Nine professional women rebelled in 1970 and with the help of a fellow named Joe Cullman at Philip Morris, they started their own professional women’s tour. It became known as the Virginia Slims Invitational, though history will show that the first event was in Houston in September 1970. I would say that we Richmonders can legitimately claim that the actual tournament series kicked off right here at the Westwood Racket Club in Richmond.
You know I’ve lived in Richmond most of my life, Brooks, but I don’t know this Westwood.
Where is it?
Smith: Westwood is just a couple of blocks off Libbie in the near West End. It’s a great old club started as a Donald Ross golf course. Way back when it was turned into an officer’s club and it’s now a very popular racket club and swim and fitness center. This tournament took place in November of 1970. There was a great oldtime sports editor for the News Leader named Jennings Culley and he reported the event this way in one of his columns: “The tennis world’s version of the women’s liberation has come to town. And if you can forget the politics of the game, you’ll find the young rebels are a delightful bunch of gals. Who, as the punsters say, have found tennis a game of love, not just a racket.” The event was standing room only; apparently they built bleachers just for the Invitational; up to 2,000 Richmonders came out for it.
Smith: And the finals featured a continuation of a long-running rivalry between Billie Jean King and Nancy Richey. At the time King was a three-time Wimbledon champion, ranked third in the world. Richey was a two-time Grand Slammer herself and ranked number two in the world.
But not making a lot of money.
Smith: Not making a lot of money at all, that’s for sure. King won the tournament, 6-3, 6-3. She took the court again that same day and won in doubles with Rosemary Casals as her teammate. This is ala the Williams sisters and their dominance in the more recent era. King, for her efforts, took a purse of $2400 for her singles title and $400 for doubles. It’s interesting political commentary that on the same that she won this event in Richmond, the U.S. Lawn and Tennis Association, which was then the reigning tournament sponsor that they were all rebelling against, sought to bar all contract professionals from the sport. Luckily for us, the U.S. LTA didn’t succeed and of course we now have incredible professional women’s and men’s tennis players. One last note, the Virginia Slims motto for many years was “Come a Long Way, Baby!” and I think this tournament is proof in the pudding, so to speak, that the women finally got their due.
More the richness of Richmond tennis, Arthur Ashe, and now women becoming part of the professional class. Brooks Smith, rediscovering Richmond’s sports history. Today, tennis. Thank you very much, Brooks.