When you think of milestone years in women’s sports, what immediately comes to mind?
Title IX came in 1972.
The Battle of the Sexes — Billie Jean King’s culture-changing victory over Bobby Riggs — came in 1973.
The first NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament — no longer under the AIAW name, but under the NCAA banner — was held in 1982.
The 1999 Women’s World Cup changed women’s soccer in this country forever.
The WNBA was founded in 1996.
Venus Williams’ fight for equal prize money at Wimbledon between men and women, which took several years, finally paid off in 2007.
All those years and all those moments deserve the discussion, remembrance, and ascribed significance they all earned.
I am relatively certain that all those years and milestones get more attention than the detail I am about to divulge about major-tournament history in women’s tennis.
We often talk about equality between men and women in tennis, mirroring debates in national, regional or global politics about the role of women in everyday life. Equal pay, best-of-3 versus best-of-5, scheduling, the use of roofs — you are well aware of the reemergence of these topics on a rolling, continuous basis at the major tournaments each year.
Would it surprise you to know that it took tennis 15 years in the Open Era to get 128 women’s singles players in the field at three of the four major tournaments?
The first major of the Open Era was the 1968 French Open. If you exclude the Australian Open, which was consistently smaller than its three “big brothers” for the first 20 years of the Open Era, the French, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open were the true heart of the major tournaments from 1968 through 1987.
Not until 1983 did those three majors ALL have 128-player women’s fields.
The U.S. Open became the first major to have 128 women in the singles draw in 1981, so when Roland Garros and Wimbledon climbed aboard two years later, women’s tennis finally had its three main tournaments at full capacity. The Australian Open being slow on the draw (so to speak) was not about a failure to recognize needs or priorities. The Australian Open had a smaller men’s field as well, and was simply not in the same category of prestige or stature until its move to Melbourne from Kooyong in 1988.
The 1983 season at the majors was the year women’s tennis arrived in terms of having fields as large as the men.
It might not be discussed a lot, but it certainly is a big deal… and this had to happen in order for future debates about prize money to possess enough heft to change the minds of power brokers and influencers.