Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: Rosie Casals
When the “Original Nine” broke away from the men’s professional tour to start the Virginia Slims Circuit in 1970—providing the basis for the 1973 foundation of the WTA Tour—the first tournament was held in Houston.
That landmark event, the Houston Women’s Invitational, was won by Rosie Casals. Born in San Francisco to working-class immigrants from El Salvador, Casals was a fitting champion.
“They can’t take that tournament away from me,” Casals, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1996, told USOpen.org in an interview this spring. “I am very proud of winning that tournament. It was a wonderful occasion.”
A fan-favorite with her daring style of play, the 5-foot-2 Casals credits her gutsy on-court attitude to her humble beginnings in California.
“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,” she explained. “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.”
Casals, who described her work in launching the new tour as more “behind the scenes,” compared to public-facing “star” Billie Jean King, played a major role in the advancement of women’s professional tennis. While King gets much of the credit, Casals’ activism both in public and private settings was equally impactful.
“I felt very strongly about things, and I always stated my case,” she explained. “I was never one to stay quiet.”
Casals’ link with King extends far beyond the Original Nine and the symbolic, one-dollar contracts they signed in joining up. The two met in the mid-1960s, and their off-court influence was matched by their on-court victories as a doubles duo.
Casals is a nine-time major champion in women’s doubles, a three-time Slam winner in mixed doubles, and a two-time singles finalist at the US Open. Seven of Casals’ nine women’s doubles crowns came with King, including her first five. Casals and King are the only doubles team to win U.S. titles on grass, clay, indoor and hard courts; they won 56 professional titles together, accounting for half of Casals’ 112 career doubles titles—a total second only to Martina Navratilova on the all-time list.
Casals won the US Open women’s doubles title four times (including the U.S. Championships in 1967, prior to the Open era) and the Wimbledon women’s doubles title five times. In 1970, she reached a career-high singles ranking of world No. 3 on the back of her run to the US Open final. Her career spanned three decades, with at least one major title in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and a grand total of 1,103 career wins.
In Fed Cup (now rebranded as the Billie Jean King Cup), Casals was a seven-time champion and ended her career with a 34-2 record. She also captained Team USA in 1980 and 1981.
The list of on-court accolades goes on, but it’s her work off the court that has had the most lasting impact. After the Virginia Slims Circuit became the WTA Tour in 1973, Casals won the Family Circle Cup (now the Volvo Car Open) and received a winner’s check of $30,000, at the time the biggest prize in the history of women’s sports. That tournament, held in South Carolina, was also the first women’s tennis tournament to be broadcast on network television.
With a made-for-TV game, filled with equal parts flair and fight, Casals’ success continued to usher women’s tennis into the modern era.
“I was a shotmaker,” she said. “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.
“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.”