Tennis great Rosie Casals is famous not only for her dynamic style of play and doubles dominance with Billie Jean King, but also for her pioneering work off the court (again with King). Their efforts launched professional women’s tennis in 1971 with the Virginia Slims Circuit, and in 1973 the Women’s Tennis Association was established to unite and represent women’s tennis.
Perhaps less well known is that she is a local legend, having cut her tennis teeth on San Francisco’s public courts. She grew up in a gritty Western Addition neighborhood near City Hall; her parents were immigrants from El Salvador, and struggling to stay afloat. She couldn’t afford tennis equipment, never mind lessons, but her father sparked in her a love for tennis when she was young. Her own talent, determination and hard work carried her the rest of the way.
“My dad used to play recreational tennis with his buddies at Golden Gate Park, and I’d whine and cry about wanting to go to the park with him. He would give me 25 cents to ride the merry-go-round and go to the playground so that I would leave him alone. But after I did that, I came back to the courts and wanted to play.”
Casals started playing when she was eight years old, and quickly became obsessed with the game of tennis, as well as a force to be reckoned with.
“All I could think about when I was in school was going to Golden Gate Park to play tennis. I wasn’t a very good student, I must say. My grammar school teacher, Lucy White, used to play tennis at the Cal Club and she took me to play. She was surprised to see the balls whizzing by!”
Although she had never had a formal lesson and was relatively short in stature (she is just shy of 5’3”), she was invited to join the junior Wightman cup squad, which played on Mondays and Fridays at Golden Gate Park. It was an exclusive club, Casals says, and also a great equalizer.
“I was from the wrong side of the tracks. Tennis was a great way to feel like I was better at something. I had to fight for recognition and for acceptance and that helped me become confident and to be committed to wanting to be good.”
She found a welcoming community at Golden Gate Park, which became Rosie’s “home-away-from-home.” Several ranked juniors played there, and anything that happened tennis-wise happened there, she says. Her friends supported her tennis dreams, buying her the requisite white clothes needed to play, and raising money to send her to tournaments on the East Coast. “I met very nice people whom I’m still friends with,” she says.
She played at GGPTC until she started traveling for tournaments. By age 16 she had become a top junior player in Northern California and at age 17 was ranked No. 11 in the United States. After graduating from George Washington High School in 1966, she played in her first Wimbledon.
In 1970, Casals was ranked third in the world, and over her career was a 12-time Grand Slam Champion, and 17-time finalist, with 123 career titles. In 1996 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (learn more on her Hall of Fame page). She has also been inducted to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame.
Now a resident of the Coachella Valley where she runs a sports promotion company, Casals recently co-founded the Love & Love Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting junior tennis and grass roots programs. She doesn’t get up to Golden Gate Park very often these days; however, she fondly remembers the years she spent on its courts, and the life it made possible.
“Golden Gate Park Tennis Center meant everything to me when I was growing up. It was a great place to learn tennis,” says Casals. “Tennis has given me everything in my life. It has taken me out of the ghettos and all over the world. I’ve made great friends and had wonderful experiences. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”