Women’s Tennis Fighters of the 1970s, 40 Years Later

Severine Bremond earned a 16-0 win over Margaret Court at the

Australian Open in 1968, breaking into the top-ten of the world tennis rankings and being the first Australian woman to reach number one. The path to her success was not smooth: she left her French country club after falling out with tennis authorities because they wouldn’t sign her because she was a girl. Court, on the other hand, stayed at the same club for most of her tennis career. But both were determined to fight for equal treatment — and their fight for equality ultimately led to a winner’s share for women when it was given full status at the Australian Open in 1973.

Jan Lobel is another pioneer in the field of women’s tennis. Her team of researchers won a landmark 2001 decision in the US courts that women’s elite junior tennis had been wrongly attributed to natural talent. Lobel later became a high-profile women’s tennis player on the WTA tour. The women’s professional professional tour began in 1976, while she was a player. Her star rose fast, but she battled depression as a result of her struggle to break through into the sport.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King was among the first players to fight for equal rights in the sport. The Australian and American tennis legends launched what became the WTA Tour in 1970. King became the captain of the WTA tour at the height of her career, helping her team to integrate, bringing all players under one umbrella as well as implementing gender equity.

Billie Jean King during a 2007 post match ceremony for French Open, Paris. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Australian players Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley also made huge steps in getting equal rights granted to women by the World Professional Tennis Players Association. The WPTPA, created in 1968, was the world’s first, official female professional tennis organization. Court had tremendous success playing on the WPTPA circuit, becoming one of only three players to reach a Masters Final and the first to reach a Grand Slam final (at Wimbledon in 1973). She claimed the WPTPA’s No. 1 ranking, but she eventually became a fierce critic of the WPTPA and joined other top players on the WTA Tour. The WPTPA fell apart in 1975, and Court moved to the WTA Tour.

While Court was a trailblazer in and of itself, the struggle to get tennis into the mainstream — both professional and amateur — and offer greater opportunities for players didn’t begin with her.

Australia’s Billie Jean King holds the Webbie Cup in Canberra, Australia in 1990. Photo: REX/Shutterstock

Women’s professional tennis wasn’t quite the equality movement that it is today in 1970 when the original versions of the WTA Tour and the WPTPA were formed. The stars and American and Australian players had to campaign on their own for equality in what was perceived as a male-dominated sport. The system was broken down by players like King and Cromley who would hire top executives, develop campaigns and run tournaments themselves. When the WPTPA folded, the WTA Tour came on board.

As their struggles for gender equality made more of an impact on society, the players also moved on to appeal to female viewership. Lobel’s research on women’s junior tennis changed the public’s perceptions on top male players, such as John McEnroe, Richard Krajicek and Bjorn Borg. King talked about how she and other women of the tennis circuit continued to deal with negative comments and rumors about the sport and the competition with power. She once said: “Some of the big bodies might have helped my image — or they might have hurt it.”

Despite these changes and advances, women continue to face discrimination on the court and at work in the U.S. Currently, only 13 percent of Congress is female, while a mere five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

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