How Judy Dalton's $1 contract changed women's tennis forever

TRAIL BLAZER: Australian tennis player Judy Tegart-Dalton in action at Wimbledon in July 1968, in which she reached the women's singles final. This was the first Wimbledon of the Open era, allowing professionals and amateurs to play against each other. Picture: Evening Standard/Getty Images
TRAIL BLAZER: Australian tennis player Judy Tegart-Dalton in action at Wimbledon in July 1968, in which she reached the women's singles final. This was the first Wimbledon of the Open era, allowing professionals and amateurs to play against each other. Picture: Evening Standard/Getty Images

AUSTRALIAN Judy Dalton signed a professional tennis contract for $1 - she had no idea it would turn into millions for the top women on court in the 50 years to follow.

This was more than a passive protest to boycott tournaments for gender equality.

Dalton is proudly one of the Original 9, led by American Billie-Jean King and including Australian Kerry Reid. This was their play to take action after the 1970 US Open prize money was made 12:1 in favour of male competitors.

The Original 9 launched their own tour circuit, starting in Houston, Texas, with $1 contracts signed on September 23, 1970. And the world took note.

What was a bumpy ride for the nine set the foundations for the Serenas and Ash Bartys even Ballarat's Zoe Hives, who Dalton knows through her 20 years' living on a farm in the region.

But this also opened a whole new precedent in level playing fields women are still fighting to achieve.

"In our heart of hearts, we could visualise equality," the now Melbourne-based Dalton said. "One of the reasons it really went ahead was when we did a survey at the US Open, which was played at Forest Hill then, asking all people who were coming in the gates whether they would watch a women's tournament alone.

"It was very interesting because 43 per cent of men said yes, they would, and when asked why, they said they could associate their game and the style a lot more with the top women's game than the men's.

When asked why, (men) said they could associate their game and the style a lot more with the top women's game than the men's.

Judy Dalton

"An important reason for us if we were to get the prize money was to get sponsorship. We felt we had good support because the women's game alone wouldn't necessarily get the audience and money."

Dalton had the playing record to back up this game. She was already a Wimbledon singles finalist, having finished runner-up to Billie-Jean King at the All-England Club in 1968. It was the second Grand Slam of the Open Era, allowing professional and amateurs to battle each other.

REFLECT: Wimbledon champion Billie-Jean King and runner-up Judy Dalton at Tennis Australia's annual Aussie Wimbledon barbecue in London, 50 years after their Wimbledon final. Picture: Getty Images

REFLECT: Wimbledon champion Billie-Jean King and runner-up Judy Dalton at Tennis Australia's annual Aussie Wimbledon barbecue in London, 50 years after their Wimbledon final. Picture: Getty Images

Tony Roche took home more prize money than Dalton and King combined for finishing runner-up to fellow Australian Rod Laver.

Dalton said the issue was not just about money. Women were forced to play with different equipment than male competitors and tournament conditions were favoured to men.

But everything was pulled out from Dalton once she signed that $1 contract.

Australasian Lawn Tennis Association (now Tennis Australia) suspended Dalton and Reid. They were blocked from the Australian Open and state tournaments. They were barred from using Slanzenger racquets or wearing Dunlop shoes.

Grand Slams were completely off the cards. When Dalton and Reid found refuge on courts in New Zealand, the International Tennis Federation considered suspending the national altogether.

"We couldn't play any Grand Slams - that was a big thing, that was huge. I miss out on the Australian Open, the French, Wimbledon and the US Open that year," Dalton said.

"It was a big gamble because we didn't really make that much money. But, the ITF saw we hadn't really signed for much and were making a point."

It was a big gamble because we didn't really make that much money. But, the ITF saw we hadn't really signed for much and were making a point.

Judy Dalton

Unfolding history was in the Original 9's favour. They were in a changing world with the women's rights movement and 1970s gender equity.

Global tobacco giant Phillip Morris had been looking for just the right fit to promote its new Virginia Slims cigarettes, marketed to women with a glamourous 1930s-style flapper girl as the logo. The Original 9 were the seemingly perfect fit - definitely not something you could get away with in sport today, Dalton said.

Viriginia Slims circuit, starting in Houston, Texas, was launched.

Original 9 ripple effects changed American college sports in the federal law Title IX, ensuring no person be discriminated against by gender for university scholarships.

In a Scottish golf club decades later, the bar manager approached Dalton to personally thank her. The female manager, from Czechoslovakia, had a whole new world opened up for her on a US soccer scholarship.

"We forced unis to be equal because of what we did. Stanford, Berkeley, Princeton, across all sports could import good players and the standard went up," Dalton said. "That girl was the first person I'd met who knew that."

Billie-Jean King came out to Australia last month for the women's cricket world cup final. King wanted to be in the 87,000-strong crowd at the MCG in a show of solidarity for gender equality in sport.

The big play in women's cricket reminds Dalton of their big play 50 years ago.

Dalton just hoped the rise in women's sport would not fall apart once the world comes out the other side of the coronavirus pandemic, which would undoubtedly change scar the sporting landscape worldwide.


This story How Judy's $1 professional contract changed women's tennis forever first appeared on The Courier.