Original Nine Spotlight:
Steve Flink | April 8, 2020
In honor of the 50th anniversary of women's professional tennis, International Tennis Hall of Fame writer and historian Steve Flink is catching up with each member of the Original Nine for USTA.com. In his latest interview, he talks with Rosie Casals.
When the “Original Nine” assembled 50 years ago in Houston, each and every member of that brave band of women’s players contributed mightily to a cause that was much larger than themselves. But perhaps the most extraordinary individual in that remarkable contingent was a Californian with a willingness to keep going forward whenever possible and a verve that may have been unmatched at that time. Rosie Casals was a leader, a prime mover and a shaker. She had been expressing her views on the financial mistreatment of female players for a long time, but now, in 1970, she took on a central role in taking women’s tennis into a new sphere of the sport.ADVERTISEMENT
Casals celebrated a spectacular career in many ways. One of her best seasons was fittingly in 1970. Casals was a singles finalist at the US Open only a few weeks prior to the Original Nine’s landmark tournament in Houston, which she captured in style. The following season she made it back to the final of the US Open at Forest Hills. She reached a career high of No. 3 in the world, but Casals was a perennial Top-5 performer from the latter stages of the 1960s into the mid-’70s. A prodigious doubles player, she took an astounding 112 titles in that forum, winning Wimbledon five times alongside Billie Jean King, claiming nine majors all together. Moreover, she was a mixed doubles champion three times at Grand Slam events.
Casals was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1996. In this far-ranging interview, she spoke forthrightly on a wide range of topics and reminisced with both passion and humor about the original Virginia Slims tournament in Houston and the ensuing years, when the women’s game exploded with a swiftness that was surprising to many longtime tennis followers who vastly underestimated the viability and allure of the determined female players.
Steve Flink: Rosie, you were not only one of the most accomplished and well-known players when the players went to Houston for that first Virginia Slims tournament, but you also took the title. How did you feel about that in terms of the history of women’s tennis and your own personal history, as well?
Rosie Casals: They can’t take that tournament away from me! I was the first in doing that, and it brings back some fond memories after 50 years. I only vaguely remember playing Judy Dalton in the final of that tournament. I do remember Billie Jean playing with a bad knee, and Julie Heldman also showing up despite being hurt. I am very proud of winning that tournament. It was a wonderful occasion. We were young, and our life was good. It was the beginning of our careers. It had not been a happy summer for us leading up to Houston. We were playing with the men, and Open tennis had come along a few years earlier, but the men were getting more of everything—the prize money, the show courts and other things. So there was a lot of discontent amongst the women that led up to Houston.
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Flink: You really spoke your mind back then!
Casals: That I did!
Flink: You wrote a strong editorial for World Tennis Magazine well before Houston in 1970, saying the women were not getting a fair shake and wondering if the women’s game was going to survive. You even made your case that there should be a woman president of the USTA. You really were well ahead of your time. And on a rainy day during the 1970 US Open, you talked with the press and freely expressed your misgivings about women being shortchanged in tennis. You, Billie Jean and Nancy Richey sat down with Gladys Heldman at that US Open to talk about the future.
Casals: We did. There was a lot going on back then. I was always in the shadow behind the star, who was Billie Jean. I was always outspoken. A lot of times, the ‘Old Lady” [Billie Jean] and I did not see eye to eye on a lot of things, in particular on what we were going to do. That was the time of women’s lib and burning the bras, of Gloria Steinem and marching, and I felt that was a great movement to be part of. Billie Jean never agreed with me on that. I felt we were very much in the same arena, fighting for equal rights, acceptance and women being able to pursue careers in sports, etc.
Billie Jean was doing television at that 1970 US Open and not playing because of her knee, so that sort of gave me that entrée to become the spokesperson at that time. I felt very strongly about things, and I always stated my case. I was never one to stay quiet. I was in a different situation than Billie Jean. When you are No. 1, like she was in 1971 and 1972, it is very difficult because a lot of the women were jealous of her. When people are jealous, they think you are doing it because it is good for you and not for them. So I feel I played a very prominent role in the background. I got along with all of the players. The other players didn’t feel I was a threat. They knew I would align myself with Billie Jean, but I still had my own perspective and my own ideas. I was friendlier with them than Billie Jean was, so I could get certain things done. Some of the players felt a lot of times that she was making decisions based on what was good for her.
Flink: So did your relationship with the other players make you more persuasive on key issues?
Casals: Exactly. I was the one behind the scenes. Billie Jean got a lot of the credit and all of those accolades, but I know she feels it was a joint effort by a lot of the women. As Billie Jean has gotten older, she has tried to share the fact that we were able to do what we did with the others. Without the Original Nine, we wouldn’t be where we are now with women’s tennis.
Flink: You were 22 and had just been in that US Open final, which you lost in three sets to Margaret Court as you went to Houston a few weeks after. You could have spoiled a Grand Slam by Margaret!
Casals: Oh, gosh. I would have been most happy to have at least one Grand Slam title in singles, and that was the closest I came against Margaret Court.
Flink: But then you made the decision to become one of the Original Nine. How confident were you about the path you were on and how successful it would be?
Casals: Well, that was in the forefront of our minds. When you are making a decision like we were, you are taking such a bold step that you don’t want to look at the down side of it. If we had started thinking, ‘Oh, what happens if we do this and we get suspended and we are not going to have a place to play and nobody is going to care about the women,’ that is going to get in your way. All of us believed we would be successful. All of us believed it was the right thing to do. What did we have? We didn’t have a whole lot. We had only what the guys were willing to give us, and it wasn’t much. They were possessive about the media, the prize money and where they were going to play, so you could tell the writing was on the wall that it was only going to be a matter of time before the circuit was going to become a men’s circuit and the women would be left out. We saw that very clearly. So we were willing to take the bad things that might come along. Could we get suspended? Yes. Would we have a circuit or a place to play? Possibly, but maybe not. As history had it, our belief was there in ourselves that we had a good product that would sell.
Casals: (Laughing) You mean my shortness? I have been short all of my life.
Flink: You were just over 5-feet, 2-inches tall, and that made people sympathetic to you, but, in turn, you had this flair as a shotmaker, and you were one of the most captivating players for the fans. Did you feel that support from the fans in those early years on the Virginia Slims circuit?
Casals: They seemed to like my style of play, and they liked the fact that I fought hard and was gutsy—all the things that people like to see. I felt that I left my heart on the court. I never gave up, and I am sure that was because of where I came from—from the wrong side of the tracks. I was growing up and playing with kids who had money and means, and I was able to compete with them, and it didn’t matter that I didn’t have a white tennis dress or nice tennis shoes or new racquets or whatever. So I think that became something innate for me. I was a shotmaker, too. I liked a lot of bling, with Ted Tinling making me these special beautiful dresses for evening play. I liked the fashion and the flash. People relate to that. They like to see some sparkle.
Flink: Did you believe the American fans were on your side? I thought that was the case.
Casals: I did, too. I felt a very strong connection with my fans. And, to this day, I get so many people coming up and saying, ‘I was your ball kid, and you were so nice to me.’ And my response is, ‘God, are you sure it was me?’ I played for my fans. That is what made me play tennis—for them. I was just at the dentist, and this gal started staring at me and said, ‘You are Rosie Casals.’ And she was overcome with emotion. She told me, ‘My dad is no longer here, but we saw you at Forest Hills way back when, and you meant so much to me. You were so wonderful to watch.’ I get people coming up to me like that, and it makes you feel good when you are so much older and your tennis is in the past and your life is in the past. You realize perhaps you have touched some of these fans in ways that were special. I always felt special. It was great to be on the court and perform—not just play tennis. You were performing and entertaining. I would dream up different shots when I played.
Flink: Was it 1971, 1972 or 1973 when you saw that the women’s game was taking off and the future was limitless?
Casals: It was booming back then. Booming. We were progressing. ’73 was a big year in so many ways, with the Battle of the Sexes of Billie Jean vs. Bobby and the start of the Women’s Tennis Association. There had to be a vision, and I have got to hand it to Billie Jean for that. She has always been a visionary and someone who has always believed in unity and the belief that you are stronger together than you are individually. And certainly Larry King lent himself to that, playing his part in helping to push Billie Jean forward. We had a path to take into the future. Things were changing drastically with more money. Billie Jean made more than $100,000 in 1971. That had never happened before. We were on television, and in ’73, we had the first Family Circle Cup at Hilton Head Island, S.C., and I won the tournament, making $30,000 as champion. I played Nancy Richey in the final, and it was the first time NBC televised women’s tennis on its own. It was a big deal.
RELATED: Interview with Julie Heldman
Flink: 1973 was indeed a very important year, with the formation of the WTA, the Battle of the Sexes. Tie that together with Houston in 1970 in terms of historical impact.
Casals: I am going to let you do that! You are the writer. We had to start somewhere, and we started in Houston as the Original Nine. That is how it started, with the belief that we were defying the USTA and leaving a comfortable country-club lifestyle of playing with the men and not knowing how much money we were going to make. Then we were embarking in 1971, helping to put down tennis courts at tournaments the morning before the start, helping to sell tickets, going out early to make a media call, giving clinics to sponsors, playing pro-ams. It was like, OK, somebody has got to do it, and we are the only ones here, so not only are we going to perform tonight on one court in the gym, but we are going to do all the prep work. We had Virginia Slims to guide us, and that really propelled women’s tennis to the forefront. In 1972, we continued to grow, and people started coming out in larger numbers to watch us, and that led to ’73, when everybody wanted to play the Virginia Slims circuit.
Flink: It was flourishing.
Casals: Yes. But let’s face it: European tennis for women did not exist. So everybody wanted to play the Virginia Slims tournaments in the U.S. We realized there had to be an organization to direct it and formulate rules. It was growing so rapidly. We said, as players, that we had to have an organization. Originally, we were thinking about having a union. But we ended up with an association, and that was the WTA, which started in ’73. That wasn’t an easy sell. Once again, behind the scenes players didn’t necessarily want to follow Billie Jean. Everybody was afraid of their own federations and whether or not they would be suspended. It was a totally different mentality and culture that you had to change. It was difficult. The American women were ready to roll, but we understood that tennis is international. So we had to deal with the women from other countries and how they thought about things and feeling like second-class citizens. Very few of them were feeling it was necessary to establish an association, like the WTA, to represent them, so it was a big deal at Wimbledon in 1973, when we started the WTA.
Flink: At the “Battle of the Sexes” in September of ’73 between Billie Jean and Bobby Riggs, Billie Jean prevailed in straight sets. That seemed to cement the foundation of women’s tennis. Do you agree?
Casals: It cemented things, not just for women’s tennis, but for sports and business. In every arena, it made an impact on how women thought—and men, too. To this day, you get guys who thank Billie Jean because of what she did for their daughters. So it didn’t just affect women.
Flink: Looking back now 50 years after Houston, and examining your whole career contributions on and off the court as one of the great players of your era and one of the finest doubles players of all time, how do you evaluate it?
Casals: I was great at 5-foot-2 and a quarter. I might not have won Wimbledon and the Grand Slam tournaments in singles and all that, but I feel very proud and fortunate that I came along at a time when we made women’s tennis and we made history. We were a part of it, and it is hard to trade that for anything. I mean, I look around now at all these players and the money they make today, but they don’t know anything about where we came from and how it happened. They don’t care, but I do. I was there, and I shared those moments, and they were important to me. As you grow older, you think more about your past than your future, but it is nice to know that you have contributed and you were a part of it—that without you it would not have happened. That is everything I could ever be and want—this distinction of being someone who contributed to putting women’s tennis on the map.