At Wimbledon she indulged herself with bowls and bowls of strawberries and cream. She has been known to wake up her roommates for a casual swim—at 3 o'clock in the morning. She plays a mean piano and is especially partial to the Exodus theme. And Harry Hopman, the pooh-bah of Australian tennis, considers her the leading juvenile tennis prospect, not only in the U.S. but in the whole wide world.
The object of this overseas admiration (there is a lot of it here, too) is Rosemary Casals, a diminutive 5-feet-2¼, 118-pound bundle of 18-year-old Spanish temperament who, until June of this year, had never had professional instruction of any kind. But her homemade strokes and a family-instilled philosophy have suddenly taken her very close to that last hurdle that separates the players of world class from the also-rans. During the season just ended, she had two wins over her close friend and unofficial mentor, Billie Jean Moffitt King (who shares with Nancy Richey the No. 1 ranking for women in the U.S.), and three excellent three-set losses to Maria Bueno, the world's best player. She also won the national hard-court doubles and the national indoor doubles titles, both with Mrs. King.
What makes all of this most surprising is that two years ago not many people outside her native San Francisco knew anything at all about Rosie Casals, and those who did tended to dismiss her for one reason or another. Nice girl, they said, with pretty fair strokes, but she's just too tiny for the big time. What will happen when she runs up against girls like Margaret Smith, who stands 5 feet 11? She hasn't had any big-time coaching and, after all, she's just a prodigy and everybody knows what happens to prodigies when they have to stop playing people their own age and mix it up on the world circuit. Now those same people are saying that young Rosie looks like the best U.S. girl since Maureen Connolly.
Miss Casals first picked up a battered tennis racket nine years ago when her father, Manuel Casals y Bordas, now 72, took Rosie and her older (by two years) sister Victoria to a handball court near San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, a 10-minute drive from their modest home on Grove Street. Papa Casals was born and raised in El Salvador, where he fancied himself a clever and quick-footed soccer player. He came to the U.S. when still in his 20s and continued to play the rough-and-tumble European-type soccer until he suffered a broken leg. A doctor told Se√±or Casals that he had to give up soccer or risk the loss of a leg. "I cried," he says. "Soccer was my life." In need of a sport, Se√±or Casals took up tennis, although by this time he was nearing 40. Quite naturally he did not develop into a classical player, but he learned a great variety of chops, spins and slices, and put his intelligence to full use.
October 23, 1966
Being older, Victoria was the better of the two sisters at the start, but that changed rapidly. "I liked to sing and dance and cook," Victoria says. "But Rosie could put her mind to five hours of tennis." Soon Casals was buying tennis shoes for Rosie while Victoria still shuffled around in sandals.
Although not a professional coach, Se√±or Casals did well by his younger daughter. "I'd rather have him coach me than anyone else," Rosie says. "He knows me so well, and I think it's easier for him to tell instinctively when something is wrong with my game. I've heard of tennis parents who put too much pressure on the kids, but that's not the way it is with my father and me."
At Golden Gate, Se√±or Casals quickly sent Rosie against male opponents, who liked her run, run, run style. Most of them, of course, could beat her, but the only time Rosie pouted was if she thought they were carrying her. She didn't like to get beat, but she wanted to win or lose all out.
All of these parental and public court factors show up in Miss Casals' game today, and were visible at Forest Hills during the U.S. nationals last month. More than one spectator was heard to remark, "She has a lot of courage," and that is an accurate summation of her game. Her forehand is hit with tremendous overspin; and when she serves, it is sometimes hard to believe that Rosie is not a man. Her service is rarely tempered and is hit with all the twist and body gymnastics of a Tony Trabert. These strokes, coupled with an uncanny ability to cover the court, give her about two-thirds (or perhaps four-fifths) of the equipment she will need to dominate women's tennis. The missing fraction is her backhand, which so far tends to be a defensive chop. Since such a shot seems out of character for Rosie, it is likely she will correct it.
Her size might seem a disadvantage, but all Rosie says is, "Sometimes I wish I were taller, but a lot of these big girls just can't get around. Lobs? Sure they're tough, but I can run down most of those that get by me."
Rosie's biggest plus is an inordinate amount of court intelligence and a wonderful court disposition that successfully straddles that fine line between players whose temperamental outbursts and court antics immediately classify them as juvenile boors and those whose blandness and mechanical competence give them absolutely no color at all. Again, the prime factor is the influence of Papa Casals. "Good manners are important," he says. "And all the top-ranked players, they get to talking to themselves. I tell Rosie that's no good. When you start talking to yourself you can't concentrate. Your brain has got to be free."
The result is a little girl with heaps of energy pulsating just below the surface. Rosie's court expression rarely changes—she looks a little frightened, as though she had just waked up from a nightmare, and a little truculent, as though she were about to kill the dream. Errors and passing shots are treated with equal impassiveness. The only emotion she displays is an occasional slap of her substantial thighs, a quick, almost unnoticed shake of a closed fist. Her hair, dark and close-cropped, is a bit frazzled from the moment she walks onto a court. This and her bouncy style of play give her all the color she will ever need.
Everybody who talks of Miss Casals is full of praise but, quite naturally at this point, retains some reservations. Hopman says, "She already hits harder and with greater variety than most players. Lack of experience in choosing the right ball to bear down on makes her erratic, but her court sense is so strong and her balance so good that it won't be long before she is able to control her tendency to overhit. If I judge her temperament right, she is going to have the confidence not only to attack courageously and go for the lines on her passing shots, but also to lob effectively in defense—and that is something the present top women players sadly lack.
"Rosemary is the tomboy type and a little wayward, and I think this will help her game, although I must add she is sure to shock a few officials before she arrives at the top."
San Francisco's Norman Brooks, a ranking senior player and northern California tennis official, says, "Rosie has picked up her game this summer. She has a natural feel and touch that do not come to other girls. The game is easy for her, but she hits shots so naturally that she often makes silly errors. I have noticed she isn't making so many loose mistakes anymore. Her problems were lack of concentration and tendencies to become lackadaisical and serve too quickly. Top competition has made her think harder. And another thing—Rosie used to be shy and silent, but now she is more gracious and meets people well. She is pleasant and very down to earth conversationally."
Mrs. King adds, "Rosie is a lot like Arthur Ashe—the more pressure there is, the looser she seems to get. I guess she gets tense just like everybody else, though she never shows it. She wants to be the best, and with her determination and potential I'd say she'll make it."
Everything that Rosemary does, both the good and bad, was much in evidence during the nationals, especially in her quarter-final and semifinal matches. In the round of eight she played fourth-seeded Fran√ßoise Durr of France, a deceptively bland player who serves the ball as if she is afraid of hurting it. A style like that is tailor-made for Miss Casals' powerful strokes, but early in the match Rosie tried to belt winners off Miss Dun's pitty-pat shots and quickly found herself down 4-1. Then she adjusted to Miss Durr's style, started hitting the ball more cautiously and went on to take a straight-set victory.
The next day against Miss Bueno, Rosie started slowly and was overwhelmed in the first set 6-2. But in the second she fought magnificently, extricating herself time and time again with confident placements. She passed Maria repeatedly and lobbed with precision. She won the second set at 12-10. In the third Rosie quickly broke Miss Bueno's service, but it just as quickly became obvious that Rosie had reached the end of the line and, after breaking back, Miss Bueno ran out the set and the match 6-3.
To date. Miss Casals' overall record is a kaleidoscope of inconsistency. Despite her wins over Mrs. King and Miss Durr and her three strong losses to Miss Bueno, she has losses to Tory Ann Fretz, Patsy Rippy and Kathy Harter, players she should defeat easily. And at Merion in mid-August she lost to Esme Emanuel before the quarter-finals of the girls' national tournament.
It was the same last year, and so now Miss Casals is ranked only 11th in the U.S. This year she should do much better, surely no worse than fifth, and quite possibly as high as third. Rosie, who is being helped by Doris Hart, a former U.S. national champion, is now playing in South America. This winter she will follow the sun to Australia and then to Africa as she takes part in her first full year on the world's circuit.
Miss Casals graduated from high school last June. An excellent student and a voracious reader, she eventually plans a medical career. "By the end of a year, though." Hopman says, "I feel she will be so well established as an international player that her appetite for championship laurels will have pushed thoughts of medicine out of her head."
Moments after Miss Casals had defeated Miss Durr at Forest Hills, Mrs. Hazel Wightman, the leading lady of U.S. tennis, worked her way through the crowd of well-wishers and lightly bussed Miss Casals on the cheek. Not a word was spoken, although a big smile crossed the tiny girl's face.
"There they are," a bystander remarked, "the oldest champion and the youngest."
Well, not quite yet. But check around in a year or two. Things just might work out that way.