The Women's Tennis Association (WTA), founded in 1973 by Billie Jean King, is the principal organizing body of women's professional tennis. It governs the WTA Tour which is the worldwide professional tennis tour for women. Its counterpart organization in the men's professional game is the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).
The Open Era, allowing professional players to compete alongside amateurs, began in 1968. The first open tournament was the British Hard Court Championships in Bournemouth. At the first Open Wimbledon the prize fund difference was 2.5:1 in favour of men. Billie Jean King won £750 for taking the title while Rod Laver won £2,000. The total purses of both competitions were £14,800 for men and £5,680 for women. Confusion also reigned as no one knew how many open tournaments there were supposed to be. The tournaments that did not want to provide prize money eventually faded out of the calendar, including the U.S. Eastern Grass Court circuit with stops at Merion Cricket Club and Essex county club.
There were two professional tennis circuits in existence at the start of the Open Era: World Championship Tennis (WCT), which was for men only, and the National Tennis League (NTL). Ann Jones, Rosie Casals, Francoise Durr, and Billie Jean King joined NTL. King was paid $40,000 a year, Jones was paid $25,000, and Casals and Durr were paid $20,000 each. The group played established tournaments such as the US Open and Wimbledon. But the group also organised their own tournaments, playing in the south of France for two months. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) then imposed several sanctions on the group: the women were not allowed to play in the Wightman Cup in 1968 and 1969 and the USTLA refused to include Casals and King in their rankings for these years.
By the 1970s the pay differential had increased. As King states, “Promoters were making more money. Male tennis players were making more money. Everybody was making more money except the women”. In 1969, ratios of 5:1 in terms of pay between men and women were common at smaller tournaments. By 1970 these figures ballooned to 8:1 and even 12:1.
In 1970 Margaret Court won the Grand Slam and received only a $15,000 bonus, whereas the men could achieve up to $1 million. The low point in women’s pay inequality came before the US Open in 1970. The Pacific Southwest Championships directed by Jack Kramer, had announced a 12:1 ratio in the prize money difference between what males and females would win. The tournament would not take place until after the US Open. Several female players contacted Gladys Heldman, publisher of World Tennis Magazine, and stated that they wanted to boycott the event. While she advised against it, she then created the 1970 Houston Women's Invitation for nine women players.
The original nine women from the Houston event, along with Heldman, then created their own tour, the Virginia Slims Circuit, which would later absorb the ILTF's Women's Grand Prix circuit, and eventually become the WTA Tour. The circuit was composed of 19 tournaments, all based in the United States (one in Puerto Rico), and prize money totalled $309,100.
Formation of the Virginia Slims Circuit resulted in part from changes that tennis was undergoing at the time and from the way prize moneys were distributed. During the first two years of the Open Era a large number of male players began playing professionally, and the tournaments in which they competed, often men's and women's combined events, attracted increased investment. The International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) began dropping several women's competitions from the tournaments it presided over. For example, in 1970, the ILTF sanctioned 15 men-only tournaments, all of which had previously been combined events.
The WTA was founded at a meeting organized by Billie Jean King, a week before the 1973 Wimbledon Championships. This meeting was held at Gloucester Hotel in London. In 1975, the WTA increased its financial stature by signing a television broadcast contract with CBS, the first in the WTA's history. Further financial developments ensued. In 1976, Colgate assumed sponsorship of the circuit from April to November. In 1979, Avon replaced Virginia Slims as the sponsor of the winter circuit, and in its first year offered the largest prize fund for a single tournament, $100,000 for the Avon Championships, in the WTA tennis history. The Colgate Series, renamed the Toyota Series in 1981, included tournaments from the across the world, whereas the Avon sponsored events took place solely in the U.S. The two circuits merged beginning with the 1983 season, when Virginia Slims returned to take full sponsorship rights of the WTA Tour. Every tournament under the administration of the WTA now became part of the Virginia Slims World Championships Series.
The WTA circuit continued to expand during these years. In 1971, King became the first female athlete to surpass $100,000 in earnings for a single year.Chris Evert became the female athlete to win over $1,000,000 in career earnings in 1976. By 1980, over 250 women were playing professionally, and the circuit consisted of 47 global events, offering a total of $7.2 million in prize money. These increased financial opportunities allowed for groundbreaking developments not only in tennis, but across women's sports.
In 1982, Martina Navratilova became the first to win over $1,000,000 in a single year. Navratilova's single year earnings exceeded $2 million in 1984. In 1997, Martina Hingis became the first to earn over $3 million during a single year. In 2003, Kim Clijsters surpassed $4 million in earnings for a single year. In 2006, Venus Williams and the WTA pushed for equal prize money at both the French Open and Wimbledon. Both of these Grand Slam events relented in 2007 and awarded equal money for the first time. This enabled Justine Henin, who won the French Open in 2007, to earn over $5 million that year, becoming the first woman in sports to do this. In 2009, Serena Williams went over the six million mark by earning over $6.5 million in a single year. Then in 2012 both Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka became first players to exceed $7 million in prize money in a single season.
American sports entrepreneur Jerry Diamond (1928-1996) served as executive director of the women's association from 1974 to 1985. He was instrumental in negotiating business deals with Avon, Colgate-Palmolive, and Toyota, and worked out the deal that made Virginia Slims the titular sponsor of the WTA tour.
Premier Mandatory: Four combined tournaments with male professional players, with U.S.$5.4 million in equal prize money for men and women (increased from $4.5 million in 2013). These tournaments are being held in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, and Beijing.
The Players' Council is a group or sub-committee under the WTA board of directors, consisting of 8 selected players on the tour that advocate player interest, handles grievances, changes in the tennis schedule and other concerns.
The WTA rankings are based on a rolling 52-week, cumulative system. A player's ranking is determined by her results at a maximum of 16 tournaments for singles and 11 for doubles and points are awarded based on how far a player advances in a tournament. The basis for calculating a player's ranking are those tournaments that yield the highest ranking points during the rolling 52-week period with the condition that they must include points from the Grand Slams, Premier Mandatory tournaments and the WTA Championships. In addition, for Top 20 players, their best two results at Premier 5 tournaments will also count.
The points distribution for tournaments in 2014 is shown below. Points earned in 2013 were a little different in some cases and retain their value until they expire after 52 weeks.