PIONEER SPIRITS - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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PIONEER SPIRITS

AFTER A CANCER DIAGNOSIS, A TRAILBLAZING PLAYER GOT HELP FROM HER OLD FRIENDS
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IN 1970, Peaches Bartkowicz and eight other women—fed up with earning vastly less than their male counterparts in professional tennis—took a risk. The Original 9, as they came to be known, spurned the sport's establishment and signed $1 contracts with Gladys Heldman, the publisher of World Tennis. Three years later their breakaway tour became the Women's Tennis Association.

Now, in part because of pioneers like Bartkowicz, female pros earn the same prize money as the men at Grand Slams. And in the first four months of the 2019 season, seven women have already earned more than $1 million each.

But tennis, and especially women's tennis, wasn't always so lucrative. So in 2015, when Bartkowicz was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare form of chronic leukemia that disrupts the body's production of blood cells, she wasn't sure how she would pay for her medical care. Her insurance covered a bone marrow transplant, but doctors told her she'd need a caretaker for several months, plus regular visits from nurses at her Sterling Heights, Mich., home. Bartkowicz, best known for introducing the two-handed backhand to the women's game, couldn't afford it.

As she considered her options Bartkowicz got a call from WTA executive consultant Peachy Kellmeyer, who had been the tour's first employee. She told her about the WTA Assistance Program, which provides financial aid to players in need after a catastrophic event, like illness. Bartkowicz applied, and a grant committee promptly accepted her application. The WTAAP awarded her thousands of dollars to cover medical expenses. "They've been a godsend," Bartkowicz says.

That October, after several days of intense chemotherapy and radiation, Bartkowicz underwent a bone marrow transplant. "You're wiped out—you have no immune system left in your entire body," she says. "[But] I think being a tennis player, I've always had that toughness."

Still, Bartkowicz was thankful she didn't have to take on her opponent alone. Kellmeyer called nearly every week and sent her a WTA hat after she lost her hair. Members of the Original 9, including Billie Jean King, called her in the hospital. "As a group [we] became a little bit of a family and looked out for each other," Kellmeyer says. "So that's why I think you see today so many people circling around Peaches and wanting to help."

Three months after her bone marrow transplant, Bartkowicz was declared cancer-free. The 70-year-old is one of six players to have benefited so far from the WTA's hardship fund, which is financed by the tour and its player council, among other sources.

"How do we help those players who were builders, who were pioneers—and Peaches is a great example—who helped set the stage for what the players are earning today?" says former pro Pam Shriver, who serves on the WTAAP's grant committee. "They missed out on basically everything. They played this crucial role, and I'm just glad in this little way there's a mechanism to help these players that have desperately needed it."

"What a family I belong to," Bartkowicz says. "You're never forgotten."