BILL DWYRE: Rosie Casals keeps tennis alive in the desert

 

People change. They mellow with age. They adjust to their surroundings, rather than forcing their surroundings to adjust to them.

And then there is Rosie Casals.

She is 70 now, has lived in the Southern California desert since 2000, says she loves it—“especially when the high season ends and I see all those vans and trucks with people’s stuff heading back out of town”—and has dedicated herself and her time to making it better. That dedication takes the form of a foundation she began in 2015 with former tour player Tory Fretz. It is called the Love & Love Tennis Foundation, and its title fits both the competitor Casals was and the crusader she has become.

 

 

From almost the moment that a teen-age Casals stepped onto the public courts at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and fell in love with a game where you could hit something and be rewarded rather than punished, Casals was a rebel with a cause. Her childhood and personality needed tennis.

She had come to the United States from El Salvador with parents who soon decided that Rosie and her sister were more than they could handle. A great aunt and great uncle stepped in, found Golden Gate Park for some recreation for their new wards and the Rosie Casals story had begun.

She was 5-foot-2 and not white. Most of her opponents were much taller and very white. Also, they were more accepted as traditional tennis types, better dressed and with lots more pocket money. They were where society of the day, San Francisco society, said they were supposed to be. Casals was not. So, she burst into their world by beating them, often love & love. There was no question about this young rebel’s cause.

Rosie Casals went on to rank in the top ten in women’s tennis for 12 straight years. She won 12 major doubles titles and 112 doubles titles overall, second only in history to Martina Navratilova. In singles, she ranked as high as No. 3 in the world in 1970 and made it to two U.S. Open singles finals. Her overall pro tour doubles record was 508-214, and for this, all of it, she was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1996.

Her most prominent days in tennis was her time as Billie Jean King’s doubles partner. For about half a decade, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, they dominated women’s doubles. It was a time when women were fighting for equality on many levels, and tennis became one of the more prominent showcases for females.

In 1970, after being snubbed by organizers of the Pacific Southwest Tournament in Los Angeles—the women were offered prize money one-eighth the size of the men’s purse—nine women tour players boycotted the Pacific Southwest and started their own event. They became known as the Original Nine and provided the spark for a new women’s tour.

Among the nine were King and Casals. That first tournament was won by Casals.

In 1973, after self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs had beaten No. 1 women’s player Margaret Court, the touring women needed some sort of response. So, King, the No. 2, took on Riggs in the now legendary “Battle of the Sexes” in the Houston Astrodome. The female commentator for the

match, watched by millions around the world, was Casals, who predicted a King victory score as 6-4, 6-4, 6-3. “I missed by one game,” she says now. “It was 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.”

She also referred to Riggs, on air, as a “duck-billed platypus,” which brought days and weeks of hate mail.

“I didn’t care,” she says now. “That’s what he looked like when he walked.”

Casals’ days in the tennis spotlight are over now, but her days of rebellion, quieter now, have found a new target. With all causes come battles. And with the best causes, come good reasons to fight.

“One thing tennis can do for you,” Casals says, “is get you out of your own environment. It did it for me.”

Her cause is to have the Love & Love Tennis Foundation get young players like she was into a place where they can experience what she did; where they can feel the exuberance of her sport and, in some rare cases, be good enough at it to make it a life-work.

Yet, despite being in one of the wealthier environments in the country, the very nature and structure of the Greater Palm Springs area works against her mission, which is to get children from the area’s outlying and poorer areas, into places where they can experience the game. Often and regularly.

She lives at Indian Ridge Country Club, whose Palm Desert address puts it adjacent to the city of Indian Wells, which is the per capita richest city in the country. The heart of the desert population is headquartered in plush country club settings, where highest quality tennis courts are in abundance. But so many of those courts are behind vine-covered walls and guards-at-the-gates entries.

“Indian Ridge has been great, in helping me have kids here to play, to have teaching events here,” Casals says. “But sometimes, just to get them here from the East Valley or Coachella can take an hour and a half each way. And getting them transportation is no small thing.

“Another thing is, if you do get a kid who shows promise, we can’t get him or her to enough events to keep them interested. And if they are really good, who are they going to play?”

Her problem, the problem of reaching the goals she and Fretz have set for Love & Love, is unusual.

There is plenty of supply of tennis courts in the desert, and plenty of demand for their use beyond the homeowners and residents. But the demand in which Casals is interested, the kids in the far-away reaches of the desert, remains too costly to make optimum use of the supply.

So, she does what she has always done. She fights. She speaks out. She starts fund-raisers (she has four a year). She gets donations from friends (King is among those most faithfully helping out). She’s not exactly holding car washes, but she might consider it if she were guaranteed enough cars.

In essence, she is trying to get every child in the greater desert area to have a Golden Gate Park, to be able to come, look around, hit a few balls, see others their age with nicer clothes and polished ground strokes and be able to say to themselves, and she did years ago, “I’ll just run faster and hit the ball harder and beat them that way.”

Hers is a mission built on the knowledge that it can happen. She knows, because it happened to Rosie Casals.

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