FORMER world number one, Caroline Wozniacki, put it best: “Because of the way they fought, my generation are now living the dream.” 

The recently-retired tennis player was one of a host of players to pay tribute to the group of women now known as the ‘Original 9’ on the 50th anniversary earlier in the week of their ground-breaking move that changed tennis and women’s sport forever. 

These women, led by legend of the game Billie Jean King, risked their careers in the hope they would make things better for women tennis players in the future. And it worked. 

Tennis is now universally recognised as the sport boasting the best levels of gender equality, with female stars of the game earning multi-millions of dollars as well as becoming global superstars. 

However, without the Original 9, Serena Williams, Noami Osaka, Maria Sharapova et al would never have scaled the heights they have in recent years. 

Back in 1970, men’s tennis was booming. Rod Laver was dominating the game, and the men’s tour was offering tens of thousands of dollars to the champions of its events. In contrast, the women, who played alongside their male counterparts in a number of tournaments as well as the grand slams, were earning a pittance, and getting a level of coverage to match. 

In the summer of 1970, King and eight of her peers decided they were no longer going to sit back and be second-class citizens, they were going to take some action. 

On the 23rd of September 1970, King and her eight counterparts announced they were joining up with influential World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman to form their own tour, signing contracts for a mere $1. This was despite the threat from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association to ban them from Grand Slam tournaments or from representing their country at international events. 

It was a monumental gamble but, says King, one that they had to take, even if it meant the end of tennis for them. 

"We risked our careers," said the 12-time grand slam singles winner.  

"Even if we didn't play again after that (initial) tournament, we didn't care because something had to be done." 

The tenacity and determination of these women to not settle for less, to not allow themselves and those who would follow them to be treated as an afterthought, an irrelevance even, was ground-breaking in so many ways. 

Their move led to the creation of the Women's Tennis Association three years later as the organising body for women's professional tennis and from that point, women’s tennis has never looked back. 

The WTA Tour now offers 55 events in 29 countries, $179 million in total prize money and all four Grand Slam tournaments now pay women the same prize money as men. The women's and men's champions at the recent U.S. Open each received $3 million. 

It is not hard to see the lessons that should be gleaned from the Original 9. At the time, 50 years ago, it was impossible to know if their move away from the men would be looked at in hindsight as revolutionary or stupid. There was no way to know if it would be meaningless, or change the sport forever.  

History has shown it is the latter and, as 23-time grand slam champion and world-wide superstar, Serena Williams, says; "Sometimes you need someone, or a group of women, strong people, to stand up. They were standing up for future generations, and that takes a lot of humility and a lot of courage. I'm greatly appreciative." 

King and her fellow Original 9-ers could never have anticipated the impact they would have on the sport. But if ever an example was needed of the benefit of having a woman, or women, willing to put their necks on the line, their actions, and the subsequent consequences, this is it. 

50 years, while long in the life of an athlete, is a relatively short period of time for such seismic change to take place. 

And it is this example from which all female athletes should take inspiration.  

Women’s sport in general still lags behind men’s in almost all areas. Indeed, the effect of Covid seems to have damaged women’s sport more significantly than it has men’s sport, and it may take some time from which to return to the slowly improving standing it enjoyed pre-pandemic.  

But the Original 9’s actions prove that change can be forced, however reluctant many are to accept this. It is why women’s football must continue to be supported, it is why female athletes must continue to push for equal pay and equal coverage.  

There will be many who resist change, just as there were many who denounced the actions of the Original 9 at the time of their breakaway. But without trailblazers, women’s sport and female athletes will never close the gap.  

Tennis may be leading the way when it comes to equality these days but there are still regular reminders that even in this most equal of sports, women are treated as inferiors to the male players in some quarters and there is still considerable work to be done when it comes to closing the gap across the board. 

However, any time there is any despondency about women’s sport lagging behind men’s, look to the monumental progress made in tennis in half a century for proof that there is considerable hope.