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WTA is a perfect example of just how far women have come in the last four decades

Women have long been considered the weaker sex. For the longest time, their role in society was confined to one of the following identities – mother, wife, sister or daughter. But that has changed in modern times. Today, women have an identity of their own – a politician, a corporate executive, a space astronaut, an athlete. Women have come to the fore in every sphere in life. They’re no longer the weaker sex. They’re equal with the men. And nowhere else does this quality come shining through as it does in women’s tennis.

In September 1970, nine women led by Billie Jean King (the others being Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Judy Dalton, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman) signed $1 contracts with the World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman to organize their own professional tennis circuit. This, after years of being sidestepped in favour of the men when it came to prize money and respect. Their movement would lead to the creation of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour in 1973.

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40 years later, the WTA is the biggest, most popular and the richest (in terms of prize money) sports platform across all of women’s sports. In 2012, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka earned a record $7 million in prize money. The number of men who earned $7 million or more on the men’s ATP Tour in 2012 was also two. Sure, there are lots of critics who cry hoarse that the men play best-of-five sets while the women play best-of-three; that the quality of men’s tennis is far superior to that of the women; and that the women do not deserve equal prize money as the men.

But the WTA’s leading ladies continue to march forward, refusing to get bogged down by the naysayers, continuing to serve as role models for millions of young girls across the world and giving them hope that they could aim for the stars and reach it.

A quick look at the WTA map reveals several inspirational stories and path breakers. The rise of the Williamses from the ghettos in Compton to the pinnacle of tennis has been well-documented. And 15 years after they first emerged, the most successful sister act in the history of sports continues to add new chapters to their legacy. Serena’s comeback from “near death-bed” and Venus’ public struggle with Sjorgen’s Syndrome are the latest in a long list of reasons why the sisters command respect from all corners. The sisters have also shown that it is acceptable to not eat, sleep and breathe tennis 365 days a year – holding a variety of interests throughout their career. From acting to designing to fashion and to business, the Williamses have dabbled in various other fields even if it gave the appearance that they were not fully committed to their sport. And while most of their contemporaries like Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters have retired, the sisters continue to succeed on the tour in 2013. Venus, in fact, played a crucial role in the fight for equal prize money at the slams – not letting up until the most traditional of all bastions, the All England Club at Wimbledon, gave in too.

Japan’s Kimiko Date-Krumm continues to defy conventional logic in the second act of her career. 12 years after retiring, the Japanese wonder woman came back to the tour at the age of 38 purely for the challenge. Four years on, at the age of 42, she continues to beat girls who could have been her daughters’ age and is ranked a respectable no. 75 in the world.

Sania Mirza and Shahar Peer have been path-breakers in their respective nations, India and Israel. Neither country had many female sporting icons but the two, who also played doubles together in the early days of their career, are now among the leading sports personalities back home; treading a path where thousands others could soon follow.

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And while China has had a number of women Olympic champions in various sports, Li Na has smashed the theory that Asians cannot compete with Europeans and Americans in tennis. Na took a two year break from the sport in her early 20s to go back to college but returned for unfinished business. Thank God, she did! Tennis in China has exploded following her historic win at the French Open in 2011.

In the recent past, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles have fought back from personal demons and tragedies to achieve success on the court once again. And several tennis players have used their personal experiences to increase awareness and acceptance of social and health issues.

Martina Navratilova is probably the most famous gay athlete in the world and continues to crusade for gay rights while Amelie Mauresmo came out at the age of 19 – signalling to the world that she was not embarrassed to be gay and others should not be either.

Seles spoke of her problems with depression and finding comfort in late night binging which affected her prospects on the court and just last week, young Canadian player Rebecca Marino opened up about her struggled with depression and cyber bullying. Marino said that her decision to reach out for help to deal with her depression was easily the best decision she ever made and encouraged others in her situation to do the same.

And Marion Bartoli, and before her, Lindsay Davenport, have shown women that it’s fine not to have a conventional athletic figure but still aim for and succeed in a professional sport.

The WTA is a perfect example of just how far women have come in the last four decades. As tennis fans, we appreciate the players all year round for their brilliant tennis on the court. On this Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to appreciate them as individuals.. as people.. as women.. who light the way for millions others looking for hope and inspiration in a scary world.

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