Rosie Casals owes a lot to tennis, but tennis owes just as much to Rosie Casals. On court she was the tour's ultimate entertainer, bringing sass and flair to women's professional tennis in its infant days. Off court, the pugnacious pioneer was one of the WTA's "Original 9", one of the nine women to risk their careers by signing $1 contracts in 1970, which led to the formation of the WTAin 1973.
Born in San Francisco in 1948, Casals' parents were immigrants from El Salvador, and she picked up her game on the public courts of Golden Gate Park, far away from the country club ethos that dominated the amateur days. Casals was a tennis outsider who was built to change the game from the inside, which is precisely what she did. This year at the US Open, the USTA awarded Casals the USTA President's Award, which recognizes a person who has contributed unusual and extraordinary service to tennis in the public interest.
"I've gotten so much more from tennis than I've given," Casals said on the WTA Insider Podcast. "I think most people that do things for tennis, it's because they love the game. It's given me so much, to be able to travel the world, meet friends, think of Wimbledon and that beautiful Centre Court. My life has been full and it's still full of tennis."
Listen to Casals' full interview on the WTA Insider Podcast below:
Casals' lasting impact on professional tennis and the WTA is immeasurable. As a high school teenager, she was hand-picked by Billie Jean King to play doubles together at Wimbledon. The rest is history. On the court, Casals won 112 doubles titles, second only to Martina Navratilova, was a two-time US Open finalist, and snagged 11 singles titles during an era that included Billie Jean King, Margaret Court, and Evonne Goolagong Cawley. Known for her on-court tenacity and flair for the "hot shot", Casals was a favorite on the Virginia Slims Circuit (the precursor to the WTA), both with fans and in the locker room.
In her 1974 book "A Long Way, Baby", The New York Times reporter Grace Lichtenstein described Casals as the "Liza Minelli of tennis".
"There was no player I more enjoyed watching. There was no player more conscious of the crowd. She was the most outrageous ham on the circuit. In one match against Janet Newberry, a good shot by Janet skidded deep into Rosie's forehand corner, Rosie dashed over, nearly overran the ball, and then smashed it crosscourt from between her legs for an outright winner that gave her the game. The crowd roared. Janet shook her head and smiled helplessly at the Academy Award performance.
"As Rosie sauntered to the sidelines, she shot a sly grin at friends in the front row of boxes and said, "It's the only way to hit a forehand!"
Off the court, Casals was a relentless advocate and pioneer. As one of the 'Original 9' women who risked suspension to sign $1 contracts to form the WTA, Casals - who earned the nickname of "The General" - was instrumental in working to organize and promote the tour, all as part of the overarching push for equality.
"The risk [of signing the $1 contract] was that you were going to be suspended, which we were," Casals explained on the Insider Podcast. "That's why lots of other women did not join us because they were concerned with their respective federations, that they wouldn't be able to play their championships. If you were French, Roland Garros. Wimbledon, if you were British.
"Those who took the risk they were willing to say I'll put myself on the line because this is the right thing to do, and if we don't do this we're not going to get anything anyway by not saying anything or doing anything. For those women, I have to respect them for taking that risk because we were not sure if we were going to be able to do this and play the Grand Slam events.
"We made a statement by saying we don't care. We want to do the right thing for women and that this was the right thing, to have our own circuit, to have our own tour and be able to control it. We were not controlling our own destiny. The men were dictating what was going on. There were more men promoters. There were only two women promoters."
Feisty, overflowing with character, and carrying a chip on her shoulder that she said "leveled the playing field", Casals never flinched when it came to taking on tennis' restrictive traditions and the institutions that tried to keep her down.
"At that time, the media didn't care about women's tennis," Casals said. "If you were covering women's tennis that meant you were demoted from the NFL or basketball. We had to school them, teach them about who we were, what we were doing, what was going on in the tennis world.
"They were not happy about covering women's tennis. They made it very clear that they were here to interview you but they were not happy being there. That made it difficult because you're trying to tell a story and they're not interested because you're a woman. But we told our story and we made them listen and eventually, they started coming around. They got educated, did their research, and understood what was going on."
Of course, the fight for equality is not over. Never one to back down from a fight, Casals urged current players to dive into the sport's history, in hopes that they will pick up the torch from their trailblazing predecessors.
"When I see tennis where it is, where WTA is, how global it is and how much it does, I definitely want to see these players understand what WTA is all about. Where it came from, how it exists, how it works. I don't think they have a clue."
Casals remains fully engaged in the sport these days and, as has been her legacy, she has her eyes firmly on the future. She has been coaching talented 17-year-old American Taylor Johnson on the junior level and established The Love & Love Tennis Foundation, a non-profit organization that offers support and financial grants to organizations and individuals to promote tennis or want to play tennis.
"We try and do whatever we can to bring kids to tennis courts and tennis events and teach them how to play," Casals said. "Being of Latino descent, we reach out to the eastern part of the Coachella Valley, where there are a lot of hispanics who play soccer. I want them to play tennis. I think it's a great sport, it's been great to me.
"It got me out of my environment, traveled the world. I would never have thought that when I was a kid. There's so much to be introduced to. If you don't become a tennis pro you can always go to school and get an education through your tennis."
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