- Associated Press - Saturday, April 7, 2012

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Billie Jean King loves sharing the story of how the Women's Tennis Association began. She’s far less comfortable taking all the credit for changing the sports world.

King and eight other players broke away from the tennis establishment in 1970, eventually leading to the WTA and an era where female athletes could demand equal pay and conditions on the courts.

The “Original 9” were reunited for just the second time since then, their legacy celebrated at the 40th anniversary of the Family Circle Cup this weekend.

“I get all the kudos, but the eight players here did just as much or sometimes more,” King said.

They all signed $1 contracts in 1970 with the publisher of World Tennis Magazine, Gladys Heldman, to begin a series of women’s professional tournaments.

“We had no idea that this little dollar would turn into millions,” Casals said Saturday.

King and the others were protesting inequities in prize money and bonuses at tournaments where men got what King said was often more than 10 times what the women earned. She received $600 for winning the 1970 Italian Open, while men’s champion Ilie Nastase earned $3,500.

The WTA tour was formed in 1973, and now players travel to countries around the world and benefit from millions in prize money.

The Family Circle offered an unheard of $100,000 in total prize money for its first women’s event. This year’s champion will earn $115,000 of the nearly $750,000 in prize money.

King recalled going to Heldman’s home regularly to discuss what would come next.

The group _ King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman _ stepped out on a limb, King said, by signing the contracts.

King said officials of what is now the USTA called her, asking not to form the women’s tour. There were threats of bans from Grand Slam events.

“It was a very difficult time, but we figured it out,” King said.

Still, Ziegenfuss said there was little hesitation to break away. The group believed in King, Heldman and the product of women’s tennis.

“That doesn’t take courage,” she said.

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