'Tennis gave me the ability to be somebody': Julie Heldman on depression and bottling up abuse

    Julie Heldman is making a rare public appearance in the tennis world this week at the Indian Wells Masters.

    (CNN)That Julie Heldman feels well enough within herself even to attend the Indian Wells Masters next week should be seen as sufficient victory for one of women's tennis' original pioneers.

    That she is willing to tell her story on the eve of a first major public appearance in the tennis world in seven years is all the more remarkable, given the emotional strife and mental illness she has both faced and fought.
    Heldman enjoyed a hugely successful playing career, winning 22 singles titles in an era awash with some of the women's game's most iconic names -- she can lay claim to victories over Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Virginia Wade.
      Indeed, she sits among the most significant figures in the history of women's tennis. She was one of the Original Nine, the group of female players who would forego the threat of suspension in order to join the Virginia Slims Circuit, which would eventually form the basis of the WTA Tour.
        It was a rebellion; a revolt against the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) overseeing a startling inequality between the prize money paid to male and female players. At the 1970 Italian Open, Ilie Nastase received $3,500 for winning the men's title, while King took home just $600 for victory in the women's event.
        The women's game would change further in 1973, with King's famous Battle of the Sexes victory over Bobby Riggs providing impetus to the burgeoning world of women's professional tennis. However, it remained a tough school for any female athlete.
        Heldman (far left) poses alongside her victorious teammates after winning the 1970 Wightman Cup, the annual competition between the top female players from the US and UK.
        "It was very difficult to be taken seriously," Heldman recalls. "You have to take into account this inherent prejudice -- that men should be in charge and that the women should be left to do what they do.
          "Each one of us was seen as outcasts. We had muscles at a time when women weren't meant to have muscles; some of us were gay; some of us were trying to do something that women were supposedly not meant to do.
          "We were being attacked so often by the men, so we always had this togetherness -- whether we liked each other or not. There was not one other girl in my high school who competed in sport. What happened back then was like another world. We had to be the trailblazers."
          There is, though, a rare complexity to Heldman's relationship with tennis -- a sport in which she was once ranked as the world's fifth best player, but also one that saw her at her most troubled.
          The daughter of Gladys Heldman, an indomitable driving force in the advent of the Virginia Slims tour, hers is a tale of an impossible struggle, centered on the relationship between mother and offspring, emotional abuse and survival amid decades of undiagnosed mental illness.
          Since the release of Julie's memoir last year, Driven -- a catalogue of strength in adversity, laying bare the details of a deeply complex life has become easier; the placing of pen to paper serving as a catharsis to a lifetime of bottled-up secrets.
          "It is absolutely extraordinary," Heldman reflects of her upcoming return to the tennis world. From the thrill in her voice, it is clear that she means it.
          Given all that she has faced, in many ways, this is a personal triumph that outweighs much of what the former US No.2 achieved with racket in-hand. It says much for the debilitating power of mental illness that someone who thrived in front of a watching audience -- both as player and then as broadcaster -- has felt so unable to show face.
          "It is always more of a struggle for me when there are a lot of people around," she confesses. "The fact that I can even think about going is pretty thrilling."
          The effects of a childhood of emotional abuse have seen her face a lifetime of difficulty. Long after the end of her playing career, Heldman was diagnosed with bipolar, a disorder that has -- at least -- given context to some of her difficulties.
          While Gladys played an immense role in putting the building blocks in place for the future of the women's game, her treatment of Julie was cruel. It was motherhood, but without the mothering. Julie would spend the majority of her formative years in isolation, starved of empathy, regularly belittled.