Rosie Casals was 22 years old in September 1970, when she defeated Judy Dalton in the final of the Virginia Slims Invitational – the event that truly launched women’s professional tennis. During her storied career, the Californian was a finalist at the US Open in 1970 and 1971 and a Top 10 regular in singles. In doubles, her stellar haul of 112 trophies – including five Wimbledon crowns with Billie Jean King and four US titles – has been bettered only by Martina Navratilova. She was inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1996.
Rosie reflects: “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 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.
“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. Prior to Houston, Billie Jean, Françoise Dürr, Ann Jones and I had become contract pros, playing alongside Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzales, Roy Emerson and the other male pros. The four of us got a better deal at those events, and it gave us a taste of what was possible. We could see that in order to gain anything we had to risk something, and we were prepared to do it.
“The women’s movement at the time certainly helped our momentum. There was a real feeling that we were on the right track, that what we were fighting for was obtainable. Having a strong leader like Billie Jean, 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.
“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. It was very difficult to attract their attention and get any ink. But we were educated by Virginia Slims – 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. To see how many players are playing today, how competitive it is, it’s terrific.”
Interview by Adam Lincoln.