Women’s professional tennis began in 1926, when world number one female player Suzanne Lenglen accepted $50,000 for a series of matches against three-time U.S. Champion Mary K. Browne. The series ended in 1927, and the women did not compete as professionals again until 1941 when Alice Marble headlined a tour against Mary Hardwick. World War II hindered most professional competitions and many players were involved with entertaining the troops.
In 1947, women professionals were again in action with a short-lived series of exhibition matches between Pauline Betz and Sarah Palfrey Cooke, both U.S. National Champions. In 1950 and 1951, Bobby Riggs signed Betz and Gussie Moran to play a pro tour with Jack Kramer and Pancho Segura, wherein Betz dominated Moran. Althea Gibson turned professional in 1958 and joined with Karol Fageros (“the Golden Goddess”) as the opening act for the Harlem Globetrotters for one season.
There was virtually no further women’s professional tennis until 1967, when promoter George McCall signed Billie Jean King, Ann Jones, Françoise Dürr, and Rosie Casals to join his tour of eight men for two years. The professional women then played as independents as the Open Era began.
In 1970, promoter for the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles Jack Kramer offered the women only $7,500 in prize money versus the men’s total of $50,000. When Kramer refused to match the men’s prize money, King and Casals urged the other women to boycott.
Gladys Heldman, American publisher of World Tennis magazine, responded with a separate women’s tour under the sponsorship of Virginia Slims cigarettes. In 1971 and 1972, the WT Women’s Pro Tour offered nearly 10 times the prize money of other pro women’s tennis events. The USLTA initially would not sanction the tour; however, the two groups determined to give Virginia Slims the individual events, and the USLTA the tour, thus resolving the conflict. In 1973, the U.S. Open made history by offering equal prize money to men and women. Billie Jean King, the most visible advocate for the women’s cause, earned over $100,000 in 1971 and 1972.
In the famous Battle of the Sexes exhibition match against the vocally sexist Bobby Riggs in September 1973, King brought even more media attention to tennis, and to women professionals in all walks of life by beating Riggs.
The Women’s Tennis Association, formed in 1973, is the principal organizing body of women’s professional tennis, organizing the worldwide, professional WTA Tour. From 1984–98, the finals matches of the championship event were best-of-five, uniquely among women’s tournaments. In 1999, the finals reverted to best-of-three. The WTA Tour Championships are generally considered to be the women’s fifth most prestigious event (after the four Grand Slam tournaments.) Sponsors have included Virginia Slims (1971–78), Avon (1979–82), Virginia Slims again (1983–94), J.P. Morgan Chase (1996–2000), Sanex (2001) Home Depot (2002), and Sony Ericsson (2006).