Pioneers of Women’s Tennis Make Gains in Pursuit of Recognition

While current stars of women’s tennis play for record prize money at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China, this week, the pioneers of the women’s tour from the 1970s and 1980s continue to fight for recognition and money after being shut out of a pension.

Their years of research and negotiation bore fruit through a deal with the WTA in March, but their work is not done.

The WTA agreed to pay $1.25 million over five years to create a Legacy Fund, and nearly 250 players will each receive a one-time payment of $5,000. The first group was paid in October.

Pam Teeguarden, who won a Grand Slam doubles title and another in mixed doubles, credited Steve Simon, the WTA chief executive, with championing the women’s cause after past efforts had been rebuffed. She said that this was a good first step and that “the Legacy Fund represents recognition.”

Most of the women wished for more money or to be included in the WTA pension plan.

“I hoped for a lot more,” said Paula Smith, who played from 1976 to 1988 and won 13 doubles titles, “but we’re lucky they did it at all.”

But they are not settling for one last payday. They have begun lobbying the four Grand Slam tournaments to match the WTA’s contributions to the Legacy Fund. If all four participate, everyone in the group could receive $25,000, said Trish Bostrom, who had an eight-year career and was ranked as high as fifth in doubles.

Pam Austin said the group might also approach early sponsors like Virginia Slims and Colgate to contribute to the fund.

The process began in 2016, when a group that included Hall of Famers Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals met with Simon in Indian Wells, Calif., to ask for a pension. While King and Casals had helped form the women’s tour in 1970 and the WTA in 1973, no pension was created until 1991. Unlike the men’s tour, the WTA did not include earlier players in the pension; anyone who retired before 1991 received nothing.

Simon said it was too late to establish a pension and instead created the Legacy Fund. “We felt it was positive and efficient and we got support of our board and the group of players,” he said.

The WTA will also collect stories from each woman about the camaraderie and challenges of life on the early tour, Simon said. The stories will be used in marketing and to celebrate the coming 50th anniversaries of key milestones.

Simon charged the women leading the movement — Bostrom, Teeguarden, Smith, Austin, Cynthia Doerner, Barbara Jordan and Julie Heldman — with laying out criteria for who should receive payments.

With early records scarce, there was debate about numerous topics. Should only players who entered Grand Slams qualify? Should singles count more than doubles? Should only top players or longer-lasting players be included?

Ultimately, the WTA arranged for an arbitrator, and a more inclusive model was chosen.

There are 243 players currently part of the fund; some are still appealing. While 105 are American, the list includes former professionals from Britain, Australia, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Italy and others.

Some women felt those who played longer should get more money, but the WTA decided that all players should be equally paid.

“The money isn’t going to change anybody’s life,” Simon said. “This seemed like the cleanest, easiest and most fair way.”

The women’s pro tour that became the WTA was founded in 1970, when nine players joined for $1 each.Credit…International Tennis Hall of Fame Archive

Jordan, the 1979 Australian Open winner, said she understood why some women felt they deserved more, but added: “Steve put in more money than we expected. It’s a lot of money that’s just divided up among a lot of people.”

But that division minimizes the impact. Lesley Hunt, who retired in 1979, needed more help. While grateful for the $5,000, she said, “a pension could have been life-changing for me.”

Hunt has had four knee surgeries and arthritis in her lower back and is awaiting a second round of neural stimulation implants. Worried about losing her home while she heals, Hunt teaches tennis part-time, even while using a wheelchair.

“$25,000 would give me a couple more years in my own home, getting out of my wheelchair and on my feet so I’m finally able to work in my tennis teaching job full time again,” she said.

With the WTA deal completed, Teeguarden, Bostrom and Austin targeted the Grand Slam tournaments, which reap hundreds of millions in revenue annually.

Thirty women in the group covered by the fund reached at least one Grand Slam singles final and 17 won, while 54 reached a major doubles final and 38 won. Even with some duplication, more than a quarter of the 243 women on the list reached at least one major singles or doubles final.

“They benefited so much from having us playing in those days,” Teeguarden said. “We built their future.”

Bostrom said Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Tracy Austin, Frankie Durr, Rosie Casals and even Monica Seles, who played after the pension was in place, endorsed a letter asking the Grand Slam organizers to contribute to the Legacy Fund.

“Validation is always nice, but especially when it goes beyond a plaque or proclamation and you get a check in the mail,” said Navratilova, who won 59 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles (all but five before 1991).

While she does not need the money as much as her colleagues, she does believe they were shortchanged.

“We promoted the heck out of the tour, even at the majors — we were always accessible and never worried if this was good for me or my brand, because we needed to sell tickets,” Navratilova said.

Active players on the men’s and women’s tours are also lobbying the Grand Slam events, the biggest money makers in tennis, to contribute more revenue to prize money. But the tournaments have not engaged in negotiations.

Bostrom said top Grand Slam executives met at the French Open in May and confirmed they would consider the Legacy Fund. But in August, before the United States Open, Bostrom said she had a discouraging conversation with the United States Tennis Association chairman and president Patrick Galbraith, who told her the four Slams were not inclined to help out. The U.S.T.A. declined to comment.

“We urged them to reconsider,” Bostrom said. “This is only a setback. It is only the first round.”

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