Interview: Tennis Legend and Pioneer – Julie Heldman

This interview was truly an honor. In November I will interview Julie Heldman live on stage but I was able to catch up with her recently to talk tennis, life and her experience as a pioneer in tennis. Meet one of the greatest of all time, one of the Virginia Slim Original 9, and an incredible person – Julie Heldman.
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1) How did you get started in the sport of tennis?
My parents were both into tennis. My father won National Junior Tennis Championship for 18 and under in 1936. But he was from a poor immigrant family and stopped playing competitively and got into chemistry. He still played on the weekend, but security was what he needed and he work for an oil company. My mother played tennis after she married my father. They met at Stanford and became so entrenched in the game they she played every waking moment. Later she became a promoter and started the world’s largest tennis magazine in 1953. By 1954 she had no time for her children, so I went to tennis camp.
2) During your playing days you became #5 in the world and #2 in the US. What was that accomplishment like? 
A lot of kids start playing because their parents push them hard and they have lots of love for the game. But I had neither. I played tennis with my parents on the weekends. But my parents weren’t the parents in the stands screaming. But a force within me told me that I had to be someone. After 3 or 4 summers of the tennis camp, I had gotten really good. In 1958, at the age of 12 I won a title in Canada, in 1960 I won the US 15 and Under and in 1963 I replicated my father’s junior title. It was never easy. I was all about winning and not about having fun. Then I began an on again off again relationship with tennis. This stemmed from my mother undermining me if I lost and I would feel so bad. I went to Stanford and spent time in France and after that traveled around Europe. I loved traveling and I got to do that through tennis. When I was younger I played through very bad pain and when I was #2 and playing against Billie Jean King I was in a bad condition from undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.  
3) What was in like playing in the Olympics and the Maccabiah Games representing America?
At the time I had certainly my best year playing tennis. Originally, I quit playing but returned in 1968, and started doing well. The world of tennis was boiling over with a political mess, someone in tennis association talked to me about playing in the Olympics and I leaped off my chair. Lots of ranked players turned it down. The word Olympics meant a lot to me. In 1968 the Olympics was based in Mexico City but tennis was in Guadalajara, it as a crazy time in the world with an assassination. Even the French Open almost shut down. 1968 was a part of a revolutionary spirit. But in Guadalajara still felt like it was a third world country and was a microcosm of the world. Because of all of the chaos my doubles partner was not American. In mixed doubles we won the gold, we won silver in women’s doubles, and a bronze in singles. 
When I finished playing in 1968 I made an effort to get healthy which included eating healthier food , doing yoga, and going to the gym. I got a coach and became a good player and had some weeks of playing some of the best in the world. I was getting offers to go play places and one offer I couldn’t turn down was going to Israel with the Maccabiah games. Israel in August was hot in the sun to even practice. There I won the women’s singles and only had a total of six games losses. I won the doubles too. These incredible Israeli women adopted myself and friend Marilyn during our time there. I was wonderful to experience Israel and stand up and feel Jewish. I didn’t grow up with much of a Jewish life but proudly stood up as Jewish.


4) Tell readers about how the Original 9 came to be.

Three of the top players in the world came to my mother because Tennis was not putting money into women’s tennis even with all of the money coming in. Men were thriving and women were moving towards poverty. The tournament in 1970 the prize money was 8:1 men to women. The stated reason for this was that women didn’t bring in paying customers. My mother put together a tournament in Houston and the night before the women were threatened with sanctions. So my mother paid the way, came up with an idea to protect the club and players, and players signed a contract with my mother. Our contract was for $1 each for one week. I wasn’t planning on playing because I was injured but I felt if they were going to be suspended I would be suspended too. We stood up for ourselves and the future of women’s tennis. Eventually, we got a sponsor and that was important to fund the tour. I played on the tour but refused to wear Virginia Slims gear. The Original 9 event was in Houston in 1970 and next year will be the 50th anniversary.

5) Why did you feel the need to write a book?

The tennis world is like the circus; perform at one site and then onto the next all together. No one knew the truth about my mother; she helped men and women, her magazine reached people but no one in the tennis world had a vague inkling to the kind of emotional abuse I received. The isolation, verbal abuse, neglect of emotional and physical needs. It was severe and sometimes extreme and nobody knew. And because nobody knew it was hard for me to understand myself. I had a huge need to tell people what it was that I had to live through. I became emotionally incapable of being in publicly proud and the world has thought that Billie Jean King started the women’s world tour. She was definitely the star and essential, but my mother started it and Billie admits that now. I also wanted to talk about mental illness; I needed and wanted to write about that.

The book is doing well and I just started traveling again with my husband Bernie by my side. The book is honest and compelling. People have told me it changed their lives because it has allowed people to be honest and tell about their own difficult situations. 


You can purchase Julie’s book Driven HERE.


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