When one thinks of important tennis players in the 1970s, number one has to be Billie Jean King. There really isn’t any other option.
Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert might have been the BEST players (ATP and WTA) of the 1970s, and Jimmy Connors might have had the best SEASON of any player in the 1970s with his majestic romp through 1974, but importance is set apart from pure quality.
Billie Jean King, with her “Battle of the Sexes” victory over Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome in September of 1973, changed sports and American life as we know them. No other person in tennis, and no other tennis event, from the 1970s had that level of seismic impact and reach. This is not a situation in which one can say, “Well, this answer is as good as that one.” No — there is no “either-or” dynamic here. It’s BJK, and then everyone else fighting for second place.
One can certainly make the argument that Rosemary Casals — call her Rosie — is the second-most important women’s tennis player of the 1970s.
The recent movie, “Battle of the Sexes,” unfurls the story in a relatively straightforward way. Simply put, the long and difficult fight waged by Billie Jean King was not a fight she carried into the public square as an isolated individual. She needed — and had — allies. Casals, her longtime doubles partner — the two won seven major doubles titles together — was one of her foremost allies, and certainly the fellow player most squarely in her corner.
The activism, entrepreneurial activity, and backroom negotiating of King and Casals — and the others who joined their cause as part of the so-called “Houston Nine” — helped tennis publisher and power broker Gladys Heldman launch the Virginia Slims Tour, the precursor to the WTA Tour, in 1970. (The “Houston Nine” label refers to the fact that Houston was where the first Virginia Slims tournament was held in 1970, not to King beating Bobby Riggs in the same city three years later.)
Casals’ role in establishing modern women’s professional tennis was — and is, and always will be — substantial. For that alone, she would deserve to be remembered fondly in the annals of tennis history.
Yet, she was also a darn good player.
She made multiple major singles finals. She won nine women’s doubles titles, one in 1982 just before turning 34 years old (playing with Wendy Turnbull). Casals won three major mixed doubles titles with separate partners. She reached a career-high world ranking in singles of No. 3 in 1970. Seven years later, at the end of the 1977 season, she was still No. 6.
Among any tennis player who has ever competed in the Open Era — regardless of gender — has anyone meant more to tennis without winning a major singles title than Rosie Casals?
That’s not a rhetorical question, but let’s at least acknowledge that you would have to think long and hard about another equally good answer.