Big Interview: Ann Jones' legacy is measured in much more than titles
For Ann Jones, her legacy in tennis can’t just be measured in the number of Grand Slam titles she has won.
The women’s singles champion at Wimbledon in 1969 enjoyed monumental success on the court against some of the all-time greats, also lifting a pair of singles titles at Roland Garros as well as five doubles crowns at the majors.
But her impact on the sport behind the scenes in the most important era for women’s tennis should not be understated.
Without the likes of Jones, Billie Jean King and fellow top players of their day, the female stars of 2018 would not be enjoying the riches they are.
The Women’s Tour Association was founded by King in 1973 and from there things have steadily improved to the point where the women earn the same as the men at Grand Slams.
To put it in perspective, this year’s Wimbledon women’s singles champion will take home a cool £2.25million in prize money – the same as the men’s singles winner. Jones pocketed just £1,500 for becoming the champion in 1969 – half the prize money of men’s singles champion Rod Laver.
And there was a lot of hard graft to get there from a group of players working towards one goal.
“She (King) was the leader and we all worked together to get the Wimbledon prize money up and start the women’s tour,” said Jones. “You had to do it to make life better.”
And that collective desire helped the players bond.
“We had the camaraderie,” added Jones. “None of us had any money so we travelled together and helped each other out.” With players away months at a time to reduce travelling costs and without the personal entourages of today, the competition on court would be preceded by training together, helping each other improve their own games.
“The travelling was great, but in my day you didn’t have any money, so if you wanted to play on tour you were away for eight or nine weeks and weren’t able to speak to your family,” said Jones. “Players can come and go more easily now.”
But how does she reflect on her own career now? In an era that coincided with some of the greatest of all time – including the aforementioned King and 24-time Grand Slam singles winner Margaret Court – does she feel she should or could have added to her three singles crowns?
“I think I could have achieved more,” she concedes, but also feels she was denied the opportunity to do so by the Lawn Tennis Association at the time.
Jones only featured in two Australian Open singles because of cost, whereas she played Wimbledon 14 times. But while she was a proven winner, the LTA chose to send two ‘mediocre’ men Down Under one year rather than her.
“I couldn’t play where and when I wanted to, I had to play where I could,” she said.
On the court, she played nine Grand Slam singles finals – losing twice to King in 1967, at Wimbledon and the US Open.
Recalling her countless battles with her friend and former rival, Jones added: “I played Billie Jean King a lot of times and she was always difficult for me to play because of my slice backhand.
“She’s always blaming me for her knees though because she had to play so many low volleys!”
Jones finally got the better of King in the Wimbledon final of 1969, and though her career would never return to that glorious height, her passion for the sport burned on as she continued to champion women’s tennis.
She took on several roles – including chairman of the International Women’s Tennis Council and member of Wimbledon’s Committee of Management.
Her hard work led to her being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985 and becoming the first person outside of the British Royal Family to present the trophies at Wimbledon when she awarded the winners of the Mixed Doubles their cup in 2007, a ceremony she now regularly performs.
It is thanks to her the Birmingham Classic got on to the WTA Tour – the centre court at Edgbaston Priory Club is named after her – and has become one of the go-to events for top players to warm up for Wimbledon.
Former Wimbledon champions Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova – along with Garbine Muguruza, the reigning queen of SW19 – will also grace the courts this month.
“They seem to have a very good line-up and it’s nice to have the Wimbledon champion,” said Jones. “Coming here, she will be keen to get her grass-court game going.
“Kvitova I’m sure will be hopeful of doing well and Maria Sharapova is a star. Maybe she’s not quite as good a player as she was, but she is the biggest name.”
Jones added: “It’s good for women and girls we have this tournament in Birmingham local for a lot of people who can’t get to Wimbledon and you hope it encourages everyone involved to take up the sport.”
But how does the tennis of 2018 compare to when Jones was on top half a century ago?
“The game has moved on a lot,” she said. “The equipment has changed and the rackets are lighter and the balls faster, at least at the French Open anyway.
“And the players are fitter. They eat the right things and and have dieticians. We had to learn what was good for us as we went.
“It’s long baseline rallies now. The men have improved and they use more of the court, but for the women it’s become more difficult to get to the net because the passing shots have got better.
“The women haven’t quite developed all the short wide angles the men have. I’m sure that will change, but it’s become a bit of a slugfest from the baseline.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the sheer will and commitment required to make it to the professional ranks, never mind become a champion.
“You have a long way to the top,” she said. “It’s difficult for parents deciding you want your children to do something and these players are so young you have to make a decision early on.
“I made my own decision. I focused on tennis and got good. I decided I would rather travel than read books.”
And it’s that unbroken determination that not only carried Jones through her career, but also helped raise women’s tennis to the heights it enjoys today.
The Birmingham Classic takes places from June 18-24 and tickets are selling fast for 2018.
Book yours today at www.lta.org.uk/major-events