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Gladys Heldman, 81; Recognized for Her Pivotal Role in Boosting Women's Tennis

June 26, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

Gladys M. Heldman, an innovator who pushed women's tennis into prominence by helping form a professional tour in 1970, has died. She was 81.

Heldman, who was said to be in failing health, died Sunday at her home in Santa Fe, N.M. The Santa Fe Police Department said she apparently committed suicide.

She set the stage for the likes of Billie Jean King to thrive on an international stage with the start of the Virginia Slims Tour. It evolved into the WTA Tour, now featuring such stars as Serena and Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport in what has become the most successful professional female sport.

"Without Gladys Heldman, there wouldn't be women's professional tennis," King said. "She was a passionate advocate for women tennis players and, as the driving force behind the start of the Virginia Slims Tour in 1970, she helped change the face of women's sports."

Heldman, then the editor of World Tennis magazine, signed the nine top players to $1 contracts in 1970, and held a women's-only tournament in Houston with prize money totaling $7,500, relying on the deep pockets of her friend Joseph Cullman, the chairman of Philip Morris, which went on to sponsor a limited number of tournaments.

"When I accepted that $1 contract from Gladys more than 30 years ago," King said, "I knew we were all part of something special and that women's tennis had been changed forever because of her vision."

By 1980, there were 47 events worldwide offering a total of $7.2 million in prize money. This year, the season-ending WTA Championships at Staples Center will offer the winner $1 million.

At Wimbledon, where the annual grass-court tournament began this week, WTA officials acknowledged Heldman's considerable accomplishments.

"She was a true pioneer of women's professional tennis, a key figure in the evolution of the WTA Tour and its inaugural tournaments," WTA Chief Executive Larry Scott said. "All of us in the tennis community owe her a debt of gratitude for her indomitable spirit and tireless work on behalf of women's professional tennis. Thanks to Gladys, we have indeed come a long way."

The current generation of stars seems largely unaware of Heldman's impact.

"She was definitely part of the beginning of the women's tour. I guess what I know most about her is what I read in books," Venus Williams said Wednesday.

A native of New York City, Heldman graduated from Stanford University and married Julius Heldman, a former junior tennis champion. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979. She played once at Wimbledon and several times at what is now the U.S. Open.

She is survived by her husband, two daughters, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her daughter Julie won the Italian Open in 1969 and reached a career-high ranking of No. 5 in the world.

There will be a memorial service later this summer, but no funeral. In lieu of flowers, Heldman's family requested that donations be made to the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Inc., P.O. Box 9692, Santa Fe, NM 87504.

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