In Her Own Words: Rosie Casals

In a career that spanned two decades, Rosie Casals proved herself to be more than just Billie Jean's doubles sidekick.

Published September 23, 2010 12:00

In Her Own Words: Rosie Casals
Rosie Casals

Rosie Casals was 22 when she beat Judy Dalton in the final of the Virginia Slims Invitational in Houston in 1970. She reached two Grand Slam singles finals, falling to Court at the 1970 US Open (with her win, Court completed the Grand Slam sweep) and in 1971, losing to her doubles partner, Billie Jean King. Her haul of 112 doubles titles, including five Wimbledons with King, ranks second only to Martina Navratilova - with whom she played her last event in 1988. Casals won nine Grand Slam titles, including five Wimbledons with King. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1996.

Jeopardizing the chance to play Grand Slams was probably the riskiest part of going against the old establishment. What else were we risking? We were really second class citizens when we played at the sanctioned tournaments alongside the men, and that meant all tournaments. In that sense we didn't have a lot to lose. On the other hand, the Grand Slams were everything to us at that time.

Prior to Houston, Billie Jean, Frankie Durr, Ann Jones and I had become contract pros, playing alongside Laver, Rosewall, Gonzales, Emerson and the other male pros. So we had already given up the opportunity to play in Grand Slam tournaments. Fortunately, Wimbledon came along and let us play.

Even so, at the time, a lot of people thought we were prostituting ourselves for the money. But it wasn't just about the money, it was about recognition, being given places to play and being paid fairly for something you did well. The four of us got a better deal at those pro events, and it gave us a taste of what was possible. It sort of gave us a head start on the other players, feeling that in order to gain anything we had to risk something. We could see what needed to be done and we were prepared to do it.

The women's movement at the time certainly helped our momentum. There was a feeling that we were on the right track, that what we were fighting for was obtainable. Having a strong leader like Billie Jean, who was a No.1 and a great spokesperson who could really command attention, was very important to us. We were also very fortunate to have found, through Gladys Heldman, Philip Morris and the Virginia Slims brand at a time they were looking to promote women. Obviously they were cigarettes… but at that time it made a good combination.

It was a tough beginning, because we had to sell the media on the fact we deserved the right to play and be our own leaders and demand equal prize money. That was difficult, because the media discounted women's tennis… if they had to cover it, it was like they'd been relegated to the doghouse. It was very difficult to attract their attention and get any ink. But we were educated by Virginia Slims. Obviously they were all about pubic relations and marketing, and they taught us how to sell ourselves. I know for certain women's tennis would not be where it is today if it wasn't for them.

I was very fast, I was a good volleyer, hit great overheads. I think sometimes the variety I had in my game made it difficult to focus. I had a lot of choices, and sometimes I didn't make disciplined choices. What probably hurt me the most was my height. Even though we didn't have the Amazons of today, everyone was taller than me. Mobility only gets you so far - you've got to have reach. If I had arms like Venus…

I would have liked to have won the singles at Wimbledon. I've always loved going there, from the very first year I played doubles with Billie Jean, in 1966. It has always been my favorite tournament, my favorite Centre Court, and obviously I had my best successes in doubles and mixed there. I earned most of my titles there. I just would have liked to have won one or two Grand Slam singles titles so people wouldn't think I was just a doubles player.

These days I have a company called Sportswoman Inc and I do charity events, tennis fundraisers, corporate clinics. I do a fundraiser for Billie Jean and a couple of others. I deal primarily with my legend players, so that keeps us in contact. Our generation has had to go back to work but I love what I do and it means I'm still involved very much with tennis. That's a good thing. I also help a couple of juniors, one is 13 and the other 15, so I keep my hand in. But obviously the older you get the worse you get. I still love to play in terms of hitting a ball, but to actually go and play a set or a match… forget it! None of the tennis resembles what it used to be, and that's not much fun.

To see how many players are playing today, how competitive it is, it's terrific. We realize every generation gets better. I would like to see more serve and volley, and I always insist to coaches that we need to show young players different things. And I want to see fewer errors. Martina and Chris never made 40 or 50 errors. Not possible. For me, you can hit hard, but you've gotta be consistent with it.

What I enjoy most now is visiting my friends and staying in touch with them, making sure we're all still around and doing okay. Especially with my tennis friends, because we were in one another's lives. They were family.

Interview by Adam Lincoln, September 2010

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