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National

Decades after Original 9, Rosie Casals' influence still felt

Victoria Chiesa | September 27, 2021

Fifty-plus years since she was one of nine players who risked their careers and reputations to set professional tennis on the course to become the world's leading sport for women, Rosie Casals remains one of the most influential figures in tennis history.

 

In 1970, Casals and the rest of the Original 9—Peaches Bartkowicz, Julie Heldman, Billie Jean King, Kristy Pigeon, Nancy Richey, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Judy Tegart Dalton and Kerry Melville Reid—protested the growing pay disparity for women in tennis by signing symbolic $1 contracts to compete at promoter Gladys Heldman’s alternative, non-sanctioned Virginia Slims Invitational. Their rebellion sparked a revolution, as Virginia Slims ultimately backed two dozen events across the U.S. in 1971 as the precursor to the modern-day WTA Tour, which launched in 1973.

 

This summer, the Original 9 became the first group inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. In September, the group was presented their rings in an on-court ceremony at the US Open—the first of the four Grand Slams to offer women equal prize money dating back to 1973—during the women's semifinals, and also participated in the coin toss for the women's final between Leylah Fernandez of Canada and Emma Raducanu of Great Britain. 

 

"Thank you for this wonderful tribute to the Original 9," Casals said during the ceremony. "I'm so proud to have been part of this exceptional group of warriors who changed the face of tennis and its history. We stood together as pioneers and fought for the right to earn a living and to play the game we loved.

 

"To use a terrific quote from my dear friend BJK, 'The Original 9, showed up, stood up and spoke up.'"

Rosie Casals (third from left) and Billie Jean King, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Kerry Melville Reid, Julie Heldman and Peaches Bartkowicz representing the Original 9 at the US Open. (Photo: Darren Carroll/USTA)

Casals first picked up tennis at age 8 on public courts in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park after urging her father, a recreational player, to teach her. She went on to a Hall of Fame career that lasted more than two decades: she won 12 Grand Slams in doubles and mixed doubles combined, won more than 90 career titles across singles and doubles, peaked at a career-high ranking of world No. 3 in singles, and helped the U.S. win seven Fed Cups.

 

To achieve this, Casals says, she had to overcome. Topping out at 5-foot-2, she was often one of the shortest players in her youth and as a professional. The daughter of Salvadoran immigrants to the United States, Casals' background made her stand out at junior tournaments, as did her family's economic status.

 

"I had heard of Pancho Gonzales and as I started playing a little more, Maria Bueno... but we didn't have that many Hispanics playing tennis. The boys played soccer, the women got married and had families. There wasn't a lot for women to do at that time. I'm so happy that I got started with tennis. My dad was a soccer player, and to have a girl become an athlete, that was something a little bit different. I was fortunate that he liked his kids playing tennis," Casals said.

 

"We came from the wrong side of the tracks. Tennis was expensive, it was foreign to us. Other kids playing, they had lots of racquets, lots of money, and I had to rely on an $8 racquet from Sears. It was tough. As I started to play more, I started to realize that everybody had more than what I had. I think that pushed me to become better, more focused on wanting to win. I felt like that was my way of making a statement. That became very important in my life."

 

In the present, Casals now works extensively with her Love & Love Tennis Foundation, which she founded in 2015 alongside fellow former pro Tory Fretz. Individually inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, Casals hopes that her work with the non-profit, which serves the Coachella Valley in California and a large Hispanic population, will help kids in a similar position that she was, and provide them with opportunities in tennis for generations to come. 

 

"They're not really familiar with tennis and it's still considered an exclusive and elitist sport. I think it’s very important to get more involved, to bring my success and what I experienced because it got you out of your environment and really showed you a different world that I certainly wouldn’t have known anything about," she said.

 

"I consider myself extremely lucky to have traveled as much as I did and met so many wonderful people and to continue playing tennis and giving back to the sport that I’ve enjoyed for so long."

As she watched two young women of color, teenager at that, compete for one of the biggest trophies in tennis earlier this month, Casals said she could not help but reflect on the role that she and her barrier-breaking peers played in paving the way for them to get there. 

 

"The legacy of the Original 9 is why we're here at the US Open... from that, you really felt that you provided the opportunity for everybody. Making more opportunities for women to play... we started getting more of everybody. You felt inspired that your movement towards equality paid off because it’s not just about money. It’s about inclusiveness and letting everybody who wants to play tennis, play tennis," she said.

 

"It’s such a great sport and I hope that we continue to grow and widen our heritage here. I’m 73 and to be here and to see both of these young ladies who played in the finals, Emma and Leylah... here we are 51 years later, and this is what tennis is: an opportunity for all kids. I know they come from mixed heritage, and how exciting is it to have those two youngsters out there and to know that perhaps we were responsible for that development of tennis for women? It’s great to see the youngsters coming and displaying that talent. I’m awed."

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