At the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, before the debate over equal prize money in tennis was renewed and the tournament director resigned over disparaging comments about the women’s game, a behind-the-scenes meeting took place that aimed to close another gap in compensation for female players.
For about 25 years, the women who helped build the Women’s Tennis Association have not been eligible for a pension from the organization.
At Indian Wells, a group of them, including the Hall of Famers Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals and lesser-known players like Trish Bostrom, met with the WTA’s new chief executive, Steve Simon, to discuss pension proposals.
They left feeling, for the first time, that a pension deal for the WTA pioneers was possible.
“This would be very important and should have been done in the past,” said Casals, who won 12 Grand Slam doubles and mixed doubles titles before retiring in 1988 and then moved into sports marketing. “If the WTA wants to do something about it, they can. Steve Simon can create his legacy if he addresses the issue.”
She added, “The new generation of players doesn’t have to worry about their future, and I feel we were responsible for that and we should have benefits of a pension plan, however small, to acknowledge us.”
The WTA was organized at a meeting led by King in 1973 just before Wimbledon. The players agreed to put in a percentage of their prize money to finance the WTA.
“We did take care of the business and make sure it prospered,” Casals said. “But we fell short on the pension.”
The men’s tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals, started a pension in 1980, and around 1990 it grandfathered in qualifying players whose careers ran from 1972 to 1980. But when the WTA was creating its pension in 1991, those who retired before that year were left out.
“We were very disappointed,” said Pam Teeguarden, who retired in 1985 after 17 years, during which she won two Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles and another in doubles.
The men’s players were earning far more in prize money then, and the ATP has donated money to its annual pension fund while the WTA was not contributing money, instead taking it from the players’ prize money, which is how the women’s pension is funded today.
JoAnne Russell, who won the Wimbledon doubles crown in 1977, said that in 1990 or ’91, she was told by Kathy Jordan, the player who led the pension movement, “We don’t have enough money.”
Russell said: “The decision was really frustrating. It was so shortsighted. The men have been really good to their older members.”
Martina Navratilova played well past 1991 and thus qualifies for the pension, but she supported the effort to extend it.
“The women who built the tour got the short end of the stick while they were playing because the prize money was so low, and they have been getting it again with the pension deal,” she said.
Casals and Teeguarden said people tried approaching WTA throughout the years to no avail. But last fall, a new movement arose.
“The difference between now and 1991 is social media,” said Teeguarden, who started exploring Facebook only in October.
She began chatting with other former players, like Bostrom, who is a lawyer, about the pension.
“Within three days, 150 people had joined the conversation,” Teeguarden said.
Another change during the past quarter-century is the growth of the women’s game, thanks to players like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus. Prize money, sponsorships and television contracts have increased significantly.
“We feel the WTA is now in a favorable position to do this,” Teeguarden said.
Teeguarden, Bostrom, Pam Austin and others began researching details for a possible pension plan, including in conversations with ATP officials about their plan.
“Our very early estimate is that 200 to 250 women may meet the criteria,” depending on how inclusive the plan is, Teeguarden said.
“We had several different ideas, and more work needs to be done,” Bostrom said.
Teeguarden and Bostrom said that their suggestions were a starting point and that they would let the WTA decide on the final criteria. As a result, Teeguarden did not want to divulge the specifics of their various proposals.
“I’m thankful that the new leadership seems open to this,” said Bostrom, who had an eight-year career and was ranked as high as fifth in doubles and 30th in singles.
Simon praised the women, saying he hoped the WTA could create programs “that truly embrace our history” and find opportunities to bring these pioneers into the fold, whether it is mentoring younger players or working at clinics or with corporate partners.
As for the pension proposal, he said he was “rolling up my sleeves and doing some homework.”
He hopes to get back to the group soon with potential options.
“If this is feasible, we will work toward it, and if it’s not, we will move on,” Simon said.
Still, the women came away encouraged. Bostrom said she trusted Simon and his colleagues, such as the Women’s Tennis Benefit Association executive Lisa Grattan, while Teeguarden said she was optimistic.
“This is our last best chance,” she added.
The players said gaining a pension was as much about recognizing what their peers went through to establish the tour as it was about the money.
“We are not expecting a huge windfall,” said Teeguarden, who still teaches part time. “This will not change our lives drastically.”
But she acknowledged that as the players age, facing hip and knee replacements and other medical problems, “every little bit helps.”
Russell, who also still teaches, said she was fortunate because her father had her saving money from her first paycheck.
“But not everybody is like that,” she said. “For some, $500 a month would be amazing; $1,000 a month would be nirvana.”