Exclusive interview: tennis pro-Rosie Casals on ‘Battle of the Sexes’ and the day that changed every
In theaters now is the new film, “Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. Also featured in the story of the match of the century, between Billie Jean King (Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Carell), is the battle off the court between Rosie Casals (played by Natalie Morales) and ABC’s sports broadcaster Howard Cosell. In this exclusive interview with Rosie Casals offers her insights on the film that recreates that important day, talks about the real Battle of the Sexes match and how this match influenced a nation of women.
Rosie Casals started playing tennis with her father at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA. At the age of eight years old, Casals was learning the basics from her father. Casals excelled at the sport and became one of the top women’s tennis players in the nation. But success as a touring women’s tennis player had its downfall as men in the sport earned much more money at the same championships. Rosie described these times, “We didn’t know as much as players today, we didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have personal trainers and managers and coaches traveling with us because there wasn’t the money. We had to play everything and anything that we could play just to make ends meet.”
In 1970 Casals, Billie Jean King and seven other women tennis players took on the establishment of tennis. Known as The Original Nine, these nine women announced that if they didn’t receive the same awards money as the men players, they would start their tour. It was a very risky move. Casals explained, “We went out on a limb and risked our careers and futures by saying we are going to go against the establishment.”
Their risk paid off, with the sponsorship of Virginia Slims, these nine women forever changed the scope of women’s tennis. As Rosie explains, “This was the time; it was the time for a change. Women were not given the same opportunities as men. Not only in the workforce but in sports. The original nine players deserve a lot. They changed the history of the game.”
This victory for women in tennis influence other women in the country, “Women’s tennis is what brought it to the forefront; it reached so many people. It made an impact on women and what they could fight for and what they could hope for. It was the sign of the times. Gloria Steinem marched in Washington D.C. – really getting a lot of visibility to women. Women were protesting what was going on. Women didn’t want to be homemakers any longer. They wanted an education, a career, they wanted to be in sports, and they wanted to get scholarships. Hence the 1972 Title 9 which changed a lot of things. It came right after our protest, and right before the Riggs and King’s match, it had a ripple effect which continued throughout the 70’s. Certainly, women’s tennis is prospering. I would say that we had a huge impact on women and how they viewed themselves,” said Casals.
The film “Battle of the Sexes,” recreates a moment in history that took place in 1973, which ultimately influence the lives of millions of women. Casals describes her reaction to the film, “When I first saw the screening in London, I was a little more critical because I realize that events didn’t take place the same as in reality. But when I saw it the second time last weekend I thought that they did a really good job of capturing the mood and the times and utilizing their photography and virtual photography inserting Natalie with Howard Cosell. They did a lot of really good things with visual effects to make it realistic. I'm interested to see what people think of the film.”
Rosie describes her reaction to being portrayed by Natalie Morales in the film, “Well, it was interesting to watch me. I’ve never seen myself on the big screen, so that was fun. I was at the premiere in Los Angeles, and I met the cast. Natalie Morales played me in the movie, and I think she stole the show!”
Months before the famous Battle of the Sexes match, another match occurred on Mother’s Day. Bobby Riggs played a similar match with tennis champion Margaret Court. He defeated Court in straight sets. It became known as The Mother’s Day Massacre.”
So, when Billie Jean King took on Bobby Riggs, the stakes were even higher. Rosie was eager to describe the events of the match in detail, “We were playing a Virginia Slims tournament at the Houston Racket Club, and she was busy practicing and focusing. I think I was going to play her after the Riggs match. When I saw her the evening before the match, I know she didn’t want to make the same mistakes that Margaret Court made. She knew she had to focus and that her mind had to be on the task. I know her preparation was very good. She worked hard and knew exactly what to expect, which Margaret did not.
“I saw her the next morning before the match at the Houston Astrodome. I saw her in the locker room, and I said, ‘How are you feeling?’ She said, ‘Great.’ I said, Are you going to win this match or not? She said, “Are you kidding? I’m going to win this match; there is no way that Bobby Riggs is going to beat me.’ I knew when I looked into her baby blue eyes that she was going to win. And I said, ‘Are you going to win three straight sets? I know you are way too good for him, and he thinks he’s going to talk his way out of this match, no way! I left her, and I felt that there was no way she was going to lose. He was too old, and she was in great shape.
“He thought he would win the same way he beat Margaret. He thought that Billie Jean would not rise to the occasion that she would be too nervous to play her best tennis because that’s what happened to Margaret. She didn’t lose because he was so much better. She lost because she was nervous. She could not play her best game. Bobby was a distraction and liked all that hoopla and everything. Billie Jean knew this is the way it is going to be. So she was ready for all that. I don’t know how. I didn’t think anyone knew how big it was going to be. She entered that arena with a 30,000 total capacity crowd with cameras rolling, people all over, all of this happening before a tennis match. I don’t think anything has ever been promoted in the same fashion. She prepared for something that was going to be unusual. She was able to deal with the pressure better than Bobby. She was a better tennis player than Bobby. She was younger than Bobby, and she ran him all over the court and tired him out, and that was that.”
Casals had her very own match going on as she went toe to toe with ABC broadcaster Howard Cosell. The two were given the task to give commentary for the match. Cosell was not easy to work with, “Howard Cosell was the voice of ABC Wide World of sports. He was a male chauvinist. I’m sure he didn’t like working with me or thought much of me in regards to my commentary and color that I was providing because he never listened to what I had to say. He said what he wanted about the tennis match and yet he knew nothing about tennis. It was a battle of the sexes on and off the court – that was me! He knew boxing and a lot of other sports, but tennis he did not know. None the less it was what they wanted, and he was ABC’s biggest broadcaster and rightly so that space demanded the best and biggest and I was there to do battle off the court.”
Casals is hoping that the women’s movement will get a boost from the release of “Battle of the Sexes.” She stated, “Billie Jean was our leader, and she was the one that was the face of women’s sports. She has fought for social justice in her other career off the tennis court, and the job is still not done yet for women. Women and men should work together better, they need one another, and they shouldn’t be competing in the sense that men feel are superior to women. Bobby Riggs thought that and he lost. Women have shown that they are equal if not better. Women have always had to do a better job to be equal. They have to work harder to impress and make a difference, and that’s a woman. Today’s women need to keep striving and working toward being equal, and I think this generation can be because they are more accepting. I do believe that with every generation it gets is better.”
Casals commented on this generation of women tennis players, Unfortunately I just don’t think women tennis players know enough about the history of women’s tennis. About how the Women’s Tennis Association got started and why and I don’t believe that we’ve done a good job of at the WTA at schooling the younger generation on how difficult things were and way back when women weren’t expected to go to college or become a professional in sports. They need to know, and I am so happy that the film is going to put it to the forefront of this generation and challenge them, I hope, to do more. Women’s tennis enjoys better than any other women’s sports, almost equal to the men. The baton is on the young generation to continue the movement, to continue to make things better for everybody and to leave a legacy. Serena and Venus have been outspoken about equal pay for equal play. The fight is not over.”
And on the larger state of women’s rights today, Rosie said, “My understanding is that women earn 79 cents to a dollar of what men earn for the same work. Billy Jean made a great comment: 'Women should only work 79% of the time because they don’t get paid 100%.' That would be a wonderful way to protest that inequality. There is still a lot of work and women are still not getting the benefit of what happened in the 70's.”
Rosie Casals, part of the Original Nine commented about her place in history, “I feel that I was fortunate and I’m proud to be part of the Original Nine. To be one of the pioneers of women’s tennis who put their name and believes on the line and participated in something that changed the world. The young generation is blessed in many ways because others have paved the road and they need to continue. Hopefully, in our lifetime, we can see some positive changes. And I’m sure there have been some, but there needs to be more.”