Valley resident Rosie Casals was force in WTA's start
Rosie Casals, women's sports pioneer and tennis Hall of Famer, stood shoulder to shoulder with tennis great Billie Jean King at the dawn of women's professional tennis.
Casals, a resident of Palm Desert, counts five Wimbledon doubles titles with longtime playing partner King among her many accomplishments.
That the sun rose at all on a new era of women's tennis is a credit to the dedicated and tireless efforts of the dynamic duo.
After years of only being able to accept prize money "under the table," so as not to forfeit amateur status - "shamateurism," Casals calls it - a group of committed female players and supporters waged a hard-fought battle to attain professional status.
They emerged victorious.
In 1968, Casals, King, Françoise Durr and Ann Haydon-Jones became the first players in the open era to sign pro contracts.
It was a turning point that paved the path for the future of girls and women's sports, said Casals.
"I feel we started the process of letting women know they had choices," she said.
The quest for equality in women's sports raged on, as a nucleus of players - Casals and King were the ringleaders - pressed for more equitable tournament prize money in United States Tennis Association-sanctioned events.
It was in the 1970s, at a time when women across the country were feeling similarly empowered to liberate themselves from traditional - and at times oppressive - roles in society.
When Casals, King and others broke away from the USTA, Gladys Heldman, of "World Tennis" magazine and Virginia Slims stepped forward to help the women establish a tournament of their own.
"In the back of your mind, you knew you were making history," she said.
Casals won the inaugural Virginia Slims tournament in Houston in 1970.
The company's longtime sponsorship of the tour secured the future for women's professional tennis, Casals said.
"If it wasn't for Virginia Slims, women's tennis wouldn't be where it is today," she said.
Casals remembers first meeting Billie Jean King (then Moffitt) at a Pacific Coast Championship in the early 1960s.
She was wearing a Fred Perry shirt and was toting an impressive arsenal of tennis racquets.
"She had about six racquets under her arms," Casals said.
Casals and King became friends and before long, partnered-up to form one of the most successful women's doubles teams of all time.
Casals said their fiery determination and competitiveness wasn't just reserved for the opponents across the net.
"We battled on the court and off the court as well," Casals said.
Casals wanted to move quickly to make change.
"I was ready to do battle. I'm Latina," Casals said. "I said it the way it was."
King wanted to make sure they were doing the right thing.
"She had a lot of integrity," Casals said.
Eventually, a group decision, which included other players' input, was made - all in the interest of securing the success of women's tennis.
Casals did a lot of the heavy lifting behind the scenes, outside of public view, inspiring the troops, securing supporters and working the angles to move women's tennis to the next level.
She was in the trenches making change.
Meanwhile, King was busy on the front lines, handling public relations and the marketing of the women's game.
"People listen to No. 1," Casals said.
By virtue of King's standing in the tennis world - and the fact that she had the ear of the decision-makers, tennis fans and the general public - it didn't make sense for her to fight it out in the trenches, taking unnecessary chances of alienating people in the process of elevating the status of the women's game.
"I was the underlying factor," Casals said. "She was the voice."
If not for King's leadership and determination to expose, and eventually bust down the barriers of inequality and oppression in the professional sports world, women's tennis might still be in the dark ages, Casals said.
"I don't know who else could have done it, she said. "History is timing."