How WTA Trailblazer Peaches Bartkowicz Beat Cancer With Help From Her Tennis Friends

Peaches Bartkowicz was one of the Original 9, the group of women who took a risk to become the first players on what became the WTA Tour. When she was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, her old tennis friends were there when she needed them most.
By Stanley Kay ,

A version of this story appears in the May 20, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

The diagnosis was life-threatening. The patient was elderly. And the best medical care was unaffordable.

It’s a distressingly familiar American story, but what made Jane Bartkowicz’s case particularly striking was that it involved a former professional athlete. One who, ironically, helped open the door for her successors to make millions.

That patient, Jane, is better known as Peaches Bartkowicz. Long before her 2015 diagnosis of myelofibrosis, a rare form of chronic leukemia that affects bone marrow and disrupts the body’s production of blood cells, Bartkowicz was a professional tennis player known for introducing the two-handed backhand to the women’s game and winning an astounding 17 junior national titles. But her most significant contribution to the sport came in 1970, when she and eight other female professionals, led by Billie Jean King—they were fed up with earning vastly less than their male counterparts—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 men at Grand Slams. And in the first four months of the 2019 season, seven women earned more than $1 million each. “What top players earn today,” says former pro Pam Shriver, “it’s just extraordinary when you think about where things were.”

Where things were: The Original 9 broke away after the 1970 Pacific Southwest Open offered just $1,500 in prize money to women, compared to $12,500 to men. The resulting Virginia Slims Circuit, beginning with a $7,500 purse at a tournament in Houston, wasn’t exactly glamorous: It was a group of young women, on their own, trying to scrape together a living. They hustled during matches and they hustled in between, promoting their nascent tour to anyone who would listen. Today, top players fly private, accompanied by their entourages; then, they traveled together, in accommodations considerably less luxurious. During the U.S. Open, that meant lugging their equipment on the subway to Forest Hills.

“It's more a business now, at least the way I look at it,” Bartkowicz, now 70, says. “When we played, we had fun—the money wasn’t there.”

Fun, regrettably, doesn’t pay the bills. The WTA established a pension plan in 1990, but it doesn’t cover players who retired before that year, leaving out those early pioneers. Just this year, the tour created a $1.25 million Legacy Fund, to be allocated over five years, for around 250 players who competed between 1970 and 1989. So four years ago, when Bartkowicz was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, she wasn't sure how she would pay for her medical care. (She had already suffered from polycythemia vera, a blood disorder, for more than two decades.) She decided to undergo a bone marrow transplant, which her insurance covered, but doctors told her she'd need a caretaker for several months, plus regular visits from nurses at her Sterling Heights, Mich., home. Bartkowicz, who worked at Detroit’s federal court for 24 years after her playing days, simply couldn't afford it.

As she considered her options, Bartkowicz got a call from Peachy Kellmeyer, an executive consultant for the WTA and the tour’s first employee (she started in 1973). 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, headed at the time by former WTA CEO Bart McGuire, awarded her thousands of dollars—the WTA won’t say exactly how much—to cover medical expenses. “They’ve been a godsend,” Bartkowicz says.

That October, after several days of intense chemotherapy and radiation, Bartkowicz underwent the 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."

As a child in Hamtramck, Mich., Bartkowicz learned the game by hitting against a wall. She wasn’t taught many fundamentals—her serve was weak, she struggled at the net—but her powerful groundstrokes stood out for their pace and precision.

Her junior career was exceptional: Between the ages of 11 and 18, she never lost to anyone in her age group or the age group above her, and at 15, she became the youngest player to win Wimbledon juniors. Her pro career wasn’t quite as decorated, but she won six singles titles and two doubles titles, reached two U.S. Open quarterfinals and helped the U.S. win the 1969 Fed Cup before retiring in 1971.

“She was a fierce competitor,” says Ann Austin, the WTA’s senior director for community development and the head of the WTAAP grant committee. “That stamina—those qualities that were developed as a tennis player—I think also carried her through life, especially when she went through the disease.”

Still, Bartkowicz was thankful she didn't have to take on this opponent alone. In Michigan, she had her family—her son, sister and eight-year-old granddaughter, whom she calls the “love of my life.” But from afar, her tennis kin cheered her on. Kellmeyer called nearly every week and sent her a WTA hat after she lost her hair. Members of the Original 9, including King, and other former pros called her in the hospital and checked in by phone and email as she recovered at home. "As a group, [we] became a little bit of a family and looked out for each other," Kellmeyer says of the WTA’s beginnings. "So that's why I think you see today so many people circling around Peaches and wanting to help."

That emotional support, Bartkowicz says, helped just as much as the WTAAP’s financial contribution. “It just uplifts your day,” she says. “I just appreciate everything they’ve done for me.”

Three months after her bone marrow transplant, Bartkowicz was declared cancer-free. She 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 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.” In other words, it’s a gesture of thanks 50 years in the making.

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

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