Class of 1979
Contributions to Tennis
Gladys Medalie Heldman made it her single-minded focus to bring a new voice to tennis. In 1953, she founded World Tennis, “a magazine written by and for the players.” Post-Open Era, Heldman saw a gaping disparity in the prize money between men and women. As a result, in 1970, she created the professional women’s tour, later known as the Virginia Slims Circuit, to give women an opportunity to thrive as professional tennis players.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, World Tennis was a one-woman operation, with Heldman serving as editor-in-chief, layout editor, art director, and advertising director. It was one of the sport's most influential mediums, popular with tennis fans and the tennis industry around the world. In 1968, at the onset of the Open Era, the injustices of women’s inequality in the game became apparent. Heldman utilized the magazine as a platform to stand up for all players and to advocate for equality in the sport and growth of the game. She sold the magazine to CBS Publications in 1972.
In 1970, Heldman started the women’s pro tour, the precursor to today's WTA, and ran the tour until the spring of 1973. The tour's inaugural event was the Virginia Slims of Houston, which offered a first of its kind opportunity for women to earn more equitable prize money to what men were earning. Heldman enlisted 9 players including the most vocally disgruntled – Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals – along with Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kerry Melville, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Tegart Dalton and her own daughter, Julie Heldman to compete. The women, who became known as The Original 9, signed one dollar contracts with Heldman to compete in the event. Heldman brought Joe Cullman, CEO of Phillip Morris, as a sponsor of the event, and together they formed an amazing partnership that revolutionized the game. The tournament was a ground-breaking move for the sport. The players risked (and received) brief suspensions from the USTA for competing in a non-sanctioned event, and the event in general was a novel idea to have only women competing, rather than the traditional dual-gender tournament. Nonetheless, with Heldman's unwavering dedication, it was a great success and was followed by another successful event in Richmond, Virginia. The tournament prompted Virginia Slims to underwrite an entire tour in 1971, and with that, women's pro tennis was well on its way.
Heldman graduated at the top of her class at Stanford University in 1942 and earned her master’s degree from the University of California Berkeley a year later. She was a late-adopter to the game of tennis, first picking up a racquet at age 23. She fell in love with the sport, practicing daily. Amazingly, after only five years of playing, she won the Texas State Championships. She went on to play in the early rounds of both Wimbledon and the U.S. National Championships.
“Without Gladys Heldman, there wouldn't be women's professional tennis,” said Billie Jean King. “She was a passionate advocate for women tennis players and, as the driving force behind the start of the Virginia Slims Tour in 1970, she helped change the face of women's sports."