International Women’s Day, March 8th, is a celebration of the continued social, economic, cultural, and political advancement of women all over the world. From my perspective, few have fought harder to make this a day worth celebrating than Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) founder and equal rights pioneer, Billie Jean King.
Taking place in 1973, the Battle of the Sexes was an historic event. Billie Jean took on former Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) No. 1 Bobby Riggs because he believed that he could beat any top women’s player.
It felt as though the future for women rested on her shoulders, and when she won everyone was watching. I was 12 years old and living in La Paz, Bolivia. My parents insisted we watch it, and it was a big family event.
Her win signified that, while women and men are not the same, they are equal in capability and deserved equal rights. It was something that my own parents pushed for a lot in our home. Looking back, it was like watching man land on the moon all over again, and it was a moment that I will personally never forget.
The WTA has seen tremendous growth – such as prize money: $309,100 in 1971 and over $130 million in 2016. Our international group of competitors is unlike any other in women’s sports, one that finds itself moving in sync with the right side of history.
Decades of global role models for women
In the late ’80s/early ’90s, the WTA went to East Germany to play a tournament in Leipzig. At the time, that seemed inconceivable, but as the No. 1 athlete in the world, Steffi Graf really helped make it quite relevant. This was also at a time when the Berlin Wall was about to come down, and the face of the world was about to change.
The WTA also worked hard to make inroads into Latin America, where the success of Gabriela Sabatini helped lead to the creation of tournaments in Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia.
In the last decade, we have been proud to achieve further global expansion with our presence in China and the Middle East. Tournaments in Dubai and Doha began when the latter had but one sports channel on local TV. Today, BeIN Sports, born from Al Jazeera, is one of the major media players in the world, and Qatar has gone from hosting our season-ending WTA Finals (from 2008-2010) to preparing to host the 2022 World Cup. We played a major role in bringing international pro-level sports to a country where women were just beginning their connection to sport and fitness. Our collaborative efforts with the tournaments helped promote cultural growth and change.
Like Graf and Sabatini, the rise of superstar Li Na was another game-changing access point, this time into Chinese markets. The WTA held events in eight different cities this past year (growing from a long-term base of just two), including top-level tournaments in Beijing, Zhuhai, and Li’s hometown of Wuhan. Named one of the year’s most influential women by Time Magazine in 2014, Li follows in the footsteps of King herself, whom CNN declared one of the most influential in history. It is phenomenal to see the way our sport serves as a platform for athletes of substance and as a beacon to societies around the world.
We’ve been very fortunate to have global superstars, from Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova to Li, Graf, Sabatini, Monica Seles, Venus and Serena Williams, and Maria Sharapova. In the lifecycles of superstars, they grow from rising stars to champions and eventually become legends and everlasting role models for women and girls. Our wake of legends grows continuously, and so the sport becomes more and more robust in the past, present, and future.
The new digital and golden era in women’s sports
The WTA’s partnership with SAP promises to make use of technology to help women be healthier and better able to achieve their potential. SAP collects and analyzes data in such a way that it represents valuable information to maximize an athlete’s performance. Not only will she learn to be more strategic about shot placement thanks to SAP Tennis Analytics for Coaches, but also to look at her performance on a macro level. For the first time, SAP’s software and technology can help pinpoint trends in aspects like the importance of rest and recovery, of using time off to actually perform better on the court.
It goes without saying that SAP’s work in analyzing sportswomen is yielding data that will have wide application to women in general. Together with SAP, we feel we are on the precipice of a golden era of medical advancements to help women live long, productive, and healthy lives.
When I started working with WTA clients at Octagon in 1988, only the top women made enough money to make a comfortable living. These women were working extremely hard and sacrificing everything to have a chance to become the best in the world. It was amazing to be a part of a group of people who were able to identify what they had to offer, the values that inspired and motivated them, and find opportunities to grow their platform. The women of the WTA have become more successful because of their consistent professionalism, high performance, and massive entertainment value that they bring to every match.
I often look back in awe of what Billie Jean King and the WTA have done and continue to do for women, and just how far we’ve come – a feeling that goes back to the Virginia Slims slogan that started it all: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
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