When Rosie Casals won the inaugural Family Circle Cup at Hilton Head Island in 1973, her $30,000 prize money cheque was a big deal – the biggest payday enjoyed by a female tennis player, in fact.
Three years earlier, as a member of the Original 9, Casals had joined forces with promoter Gladys Heldman to help create the groundbreaking Virginia Slims Circuit.
Fed up with being sidelined by the sport’s male-dominated establishment, the group envisioned a sporting universe in which any woman could make a living from playing tennis, if she were good enough. In that context – and with prize money that exceeded anything the Grand Slams were prepared to offer at the time – the South Carolina event’s emergence on the calendar was an important milestone in the growth of women’s professional tennis.
Half a century after she defeated Nancy Richey for the lucrative crown (where she ended a 17-match losing streak to Billie Jean King in the semis along the way) Casals returned this past weekend to celebrate an event that continues to thrive as the Credit One Charleston Open.
“It makes me proud to be a part of this family,” Casals said in an interview for the hosts. “And to continue this tradition in seeing players from the past and the present celebrating 50 years.”
Joining Casals on a sentimental journey to the event’s current home on Daniel Island were two-time champion Tracy Austin (1979-80), Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (1996), Mary Pierce (2000), Jelena Jankovic (2007) and Sabine Lisicki (2009).
The players were honored on semifinals day with a special ceremony on the deck of the newly renovated Credit One Stadium’s Stage House VIP Club.
As part of the celebrations, the champions took part in Q&As on stage with Austin and her co-host Pam Shriver, as well as with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a former doubles champion at Charleston. Later, they were honored at a gala at The Charleston Place hotel, joined by two active former Charleston champs – Sloane Stephens (2016) and Madison Keys (2019).
“It’s always been the best women’s players who come here,” Austin said. “Anything that has been going on for 50 years shows that it is a huge success. To start in Hilton Head in 1973. … It was a terrific springboard. The Southern charm continues today – and the fans here love women’s tennis.”
The festivities marked a welcome return to the tennis scene for former World No.1 Jankovic, who gave birth to her daughter Una in 2021. She hasn’t played on tour since 2017, but the charismatic “JJ” has not ruled out a return to competition.
“This event is so special,” she said. “The people here are so amazing – I made so many incredible relationships here over the years. You felt like family. I looked forward coming back year after year after year. I have unbelievable memories of playing here.”
Reflecting the affection felt toward the WTA Tour’s oldest women’s-only event, Sánchez Vicario said: “It means a lot, this event. For the WTA, the tradition, to keep it going. I’m a big fan. I’m happy that it continues to have great success.”
Chris Evert holds the record for most titles on the green clay, winning eight times between 1974 and 1985 – including five in a row in the 1970s. The honor roll also features names such as Martina Navratilova, Stefanie Graf, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Venus Williams and Serena Williams.