The Ailes Apprentice Program series honoring Hispanic Heritage Month continues. This week we sat down with the Salvadorian spitfire, the former tennis player Rosie Casals.
Before there was a Rafi Nadal, there was a Rosie Casals who enchanted stadiums all over the world.
She too could run down the impossible, exciting crowds with her flair and creativity. She also won seven grand slam doubles titles with her famous partner, the one and only Billie Jean King.
But maybe more importantly, in an era where men were paid four times more for their work on the baseline, she fought for women’s tennis and demanded equal pay for equal play.
"If you dream it, you can do it you’re the one that’s gonna make a difference," Casals said. "You’re the one if you want it bad enough ya go out and get it."
Born in San Francisco, Casals was brought up by her great aunt and uncle.
"I think what came out was my desire to want to win, we sort came from the wrong side of the tracks," Casals said. "We were poor, tennis was a rich person’s sport and it was important for me to beat them."
Casals explained she always felt like she had to "beat them" because it gave her a level playing field.
"They may have their white outfits and they have their ya know nice cars and houses but I had my tennis."
A former athlete, her Uncle Manny introduced her to the game and drove her around to local tournaments.
"I’d have to push a car to get started," she explained with a laugh. "We used to live on a little hill and the Studebaker would sit there and my dad would say okay jump in and say okay I’m going to push it and double clutch it and start it. He would push the car down the hill get it started, go around the block and I’d pick him up. So sometimes I did get defaulted from some of the tournaments because we didn’t quite make it."
What Uncle Manny lacked in money, he made up for in spirit.
"He loved to get behind the court," she said of Manny who would encourage her in Spanish, "Ya know, and yell at me, hit it to the back end. And ya know you go through all this and the parents would look and say your dad is coaching you. Your dad is coaching you. He was a character without a doubt."
Standing at just 5’2 and quarter, Casals won most points on guts and pure hustle, and quickly established herself as the best player in Northern California. At 16, she met a 21 year old Billie Jean King in the state finals and quickly made an impression.
Below is an edited exchange of Rosie Casals and Billie Jean King about when they first played against one another and with each other.
Rosie: She slipped on a line and hurt her toe and I thought oh my god maybe I got a chance, little did I know she was one of those that can play through a bad toe [or anything that happens to her] when she sets her mind to it.
Billie Jean King: And we're changing sides and I was huffing and puffing a little bit because we had such a long two games…
Rosie:And for whatever reason I said, jeeze you’re like an old lady and ever since then that name has stuck and I call her old lady.
Billie Jean King: And I said, I hate that don’t call me that, [of course that just got her,] of course she just love that more.
Rosie: I don’t think too many people can call her the old lady. But what’s funny now is when we talk, we have become old ladies. (laughs)
The two would form one of most formidable doubles teams of all time winning seven grand slams together.
Rosie: was she easy to play with? No, she was not easy to play with, but she brought out the best in me because I believed in her and I think with a partner and a team ya gotta believe in your partner.
Billie Jean King:I was much more uptight, she'd show up before a match maybe and not hit a ball and she'd say oh I'm fine let's go, and I'm like shaking my head like you gotta be kidding.
Rosie: When she was awful, I could be very good. When I wasn’t so good, she could be very good. When both of us were really good, we were unbeatable.
Then in 1968, the Grand Slam tournaments opened up their draws to allow professional players to compete against amateurs for the first time. This “Open Era” finally gave players a chance to make a living playing tennis.
But barriers would continue for women in the sport.
"Well I can tell you that we weren’t given the same opportunities that the guys had," Casals explained. "Where there was prize money but very little given to the women...and that was difficult to take after awhile because we felt we were equal."
King described Casals as very tenacious.
"We actually nicknamed Rosie, general."
In 1970, after repeated attempts to get the Jack Kramer and USTA to increase women’s prize money, Rosie, Billie Jean and 7 other players decided to boycott Jack’s very own Southwest Pacific tournament – a move that didn’t sit well with the USTA.
"It was the best move that the women could have ever made because that really put women’s tennis on the map," Casals said.
They became the Original 9 and signed “one dollar” contracts. Then started what would become the Virginia Slims tour, a lucrative 10 week tour that brought women’s tennis into the mainstream.
This was a big moment for Casals and King. They played 10 events for $100,000 dollars and they know never looked back.
Casals has given much to tennis, but she says ultimately the sport has given her more.
"Oh God, tennis has given me my life really," Casals said. "Our generation, we never made enough money that we’d say oh we could retire// this generation can//14:55:30 but// I’ve gotten a lot out of it so you know. I’m tennis I guess and tennis is who I am."
The USTA has come a long way in terms of supporting women’s tennis, in 2006, they named the National Tennis Center, the site of the US Open in Flushing, Queens after Billie Jean King. And those one-dollar contracts have matured as well, this year the total prize money on the women’s tour was more than 96 million dollars.