For our sixth annual Heroes Issue, we’ve selected passages from the last 50 years of Tennis Magazine and TENNIS.com—starting in 1969 and ending in 2018—to highlight 50 worthy heroes. Each passage acknowledges the person as they were then; each subsequent story catches up with the person, or highlights their impact, as they are now. It is best summed up with a quote from the great Arthur Ashe, that was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of this magazine in 2015: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
Who won the biggest single purse ever by a woman tennis player? ($30,000 Virginia Slims’ winter tour final, Hilton Head, S.C.) Rosie, our Rosie! - Spalding Advertisement / August 1973
I am what’s known as a crowd-pleaser,” Rosie Casals liked to say. “I’m not a disciplined player. I don’t play the shots that are there, but the shots that I feel.”
Casals, who played from the mid-1960s to the late-1980s, did what she felt like doing in general. That included enjoying the occasional beer and cigarette—“A good athlete’s got to puff,” she said with a laugh. “Rosebud” could do whatever she wanted with a racquet, too. She was one of the game’s most creative and audacious shot-makers, and at 5'2", she needed to be.
“She was the most outrageous ham on the circuit,” Grace Lichtenstein wrote of Casals in her book on the women’s tour of the 1970s, A Long Way Baby. “There was no player I more enjoyed watching.”
Casals was already turning heads by the time she was 15, including Billie Jean King’s. She spotted Casals at the Berkeley Tennis Club in 1964; two years later, they were playing doubles together at Wimbledon. It was a thrilling and unlikely journey for Casals, the child of El Salvadoran immigrants who was taught the game by her great uncle, Manuel, on public courts in San Francisco.
Casals would stay at King’s side for much of her career. She won 112 doubles titles, many of them with King, and rose to No. 3 in singles. More importantly, she and King made the radical decision to turn pro in 1968, and were part of the Original 9 who ignored the threat of suspension by tennis’ authorities and formed a women’s circuit in 1970.
“We made a statement by saying we don’t care,” Casals told WTA Insider in 2017. “We want to do the right thing for women, and that is the right thing, to have our own circuit, to have our own tour and be able to control it.”
While King’s legend has grown in the ensuing five decades, Casals has dropped out of the limelight, her electrifying role in the WTA’s rise somewhat forgotten. But she has stayed in the game with her charitable organizations, Sportswoman Inc., and the Love and Love Foundation, which offers grants to promote tennis. This resident of Palm Desert, CA, wants to get more of her fellow Latinos in the Coachella Valley into the game. For her “extraordinary service” to tennis, Casals won the USTA President’s Award at the 2017 US Open.
Maybe the award will lead to more recognition for this under-appreciated figure. Women’s tennis wouldn’t have come such a long way without her.