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By Raymond Lee | Friday, September 29, 2023


In honor of national Hispanic Heritage Month, a historian highlight the careers of two standout champions: Rosie Casals and Pancho Segura.

Photo credit: Getty

The US Open celebrated the great influence of the Latin Players in society and in tennis in a September 5th ceremony.

Rosemary Casals was one of the honorees. Rosie Casals was honored for her huge role in geƫng pay equality for women in professional tennis among her many other great accomplishments in tennis.

More: Federer Addresses United Nations

In honor of national Hispanic Heritage Month, we highlight the careers of two standout champions: Rosie Casals and Pancho Segura. 

Currently Rosie Casals is involved in and is one of the founders of Latin American Tennis Foundation (LATF) with Greg Gonzalez and Dan Gonzalez. The Foundation has a mission to represent, enhance, and provide equal opportunity to Latin tennis players of all ages.

There is an auction starting on October 10th with special tennis memorabilia from Rosie Casals, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Pancho Gonzalez among other things including I believe a chance to play tennis with Rosie Casals! The link is here

Rosie was one of the Original 9 women pros—along with Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King, Julie Heldman, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon and Valerie Ziegenfuss. Casals won the first women’s professional tournament of the Virginia Slims tour over Judy Dalton in three sets.

To quote from the Tennis Hall of Fame website:

”Casals was born in San Francisco, California, the daughter of parents who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador. As a youth she had spunk and fire, teaching herself tennis on San Francisco’s public courts and finding playing partners anyway she could. Casals felt stigmatized by her economic background; fueling her tennis game and creating an acceptance that money couldn’t buy. 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. In an interview with People Magazine in 1983, Casals said, “The other kids had nice tennis clothes, nice rackets, nice white shoes, and came in Cadillacs.”

Rosie Casals was a tremendous singles player and a fabulous doubles player with 12 majors in doubles. Casals was a serve and volleyer as many players were at the time with a wood racquet but she was also comfortable at the baseline.

Standing 5'2 1/2", Casals was not among the tall trees on Tour, but she had an excellent first serve and a terrific second serve to approach the net. Her overhead was fantastic. Generally Rosie hit her forehand with topspin in baseline rallies and sliced her one handed backhand although she could hit over her backhand unlike some players at the time.

Casals was introduced to tennis by her great uncle who was a recreation player who played at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, which I might add was I believe was an extremely beautiful area. There were a lot of excellent players at that park. Rosie had to play doubles at first there because she was so young that she had to play with an adult. One of the adult players there helped Rosie by cuƫng off two to three inches off the adult wood racquet, cleaned it up and she was able to use it to play.

I would assume because Casals started with doubles as a child, that is one of the reasons why she was such a great doubles player. Doubles is just natural for her.

By age 16 she was top junior in Northern California which showed her great innate gifts in tennis! She was just a natural at the game. By age 17 she was one of the top players in the United States at number eleven!

Shortly afterwards she became one of the top players in the world! Casals, according to the Bud Collins Encyclopedia of Tennis reached the top ten in the World in 1966, ranking No. 9 in the world at the age of 18. She stayed in the top ten in the world for 12 years reaching a peak of No. 3 according to Bud Collins’ Encyclopedia in 1970.

That year according to Tennis Abstract, Rosie won three tournaments and was in the final of the US Open at the old West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. There she played Margaret Court, who was trying to put the cap on perhaps her greatest year. If Court won this final match against Casals she would be one of the few in tennis history to win the Grand Slam.

Rosie gave her a great battle, winning the second set 6-2 but eventually lost in the third set giving Court her Grand Slam. Still a great tournament for Casals.

Casals most active year in singles was in 1971 when she played 122 matches, which is an incredible amount of tournament tennis. She also played a full schedule of doubles. She won 91 of the 122 and won 3 tournaments. I believe she played in 36 singles tournaments and 21 doubles tournaments.

Here’s Rosie playing Martina Navratilova in the 1977 Virginia Slims third place playoff. There is a great point starting at about the 2:37 mark that Rosie wins.

Rosie was clearly one of the great doubles players in tennis history and as I wrote earlier, the winner of 12 majors in doubles and 112 doubles tournaments in total. Perhaps the most interesting partnership was with Ilie Nastase, one of the most gifted players ever but unique in his own way. Rosie, with Nastase won the Wimbledon mixed doubles in 1970 and 1972 over Olga Morozova/Alex Metreveli and Evonne Goolagong/Kim Warwick respectively.

Rosie, while a Hall of Famer is actually in some ways a double Hall of Famer and I don’t mean playing doubles. At Wimbledon in 1972 (Good year at Wimbledon for Rosie considering she won the Mixed Doubles also with Nastase) she wore a dress designed by Ted Tinling, the famous tennis dress designer. It was thought to be okay to wear at Wimbledon because he thought it fit all the requirements for a tennis dress there. It was rejected by Wimbledon because it had too much purple so Rosie changed to another dress.

The dress is in the Tennis Hall of Fame so in that way Rosie is a double Hall of Famer. I guess you could say Rosie Casals is a fashion icon.

I’m a fan also of the Rosie Casals headband. That should be in the Tennis Hall of Fame also.

Some people may remember Rosie on the television broadcast of perhaps the most famous match in tennis history! That would be the Billie Jean King against Bobby Riggs match on ABC television here in the United States.

Originally Jack Kramer was supposed to be one of the commentators on the match but Billie Jean King thought she would not be able to as Larry King put it, “her performance would be adversely affected” if Kramer was in the television booth so Gene Scott was a replacement for Kramer. In my opinion this had to be done. You cannot have an athlete, in this case Billie Jean King being affected by external factors other than the match at hand. It’s similar to when top players don’t want the crowd to be walking in the background during a point.

Many viewers of the telecast noticed Rosie’s negative tone towards Riggs. The main reason was that behind the scenes they encouraged Rosie to make derogatory remarks against Riggs. Frankly as a viewer at the time I think it worked out very well. It was actually very amusing and worked very smoothly as the match progressed.

It was annoying for me to hear Howard Cosell use incorrect tennis terminology during the match. I think Rosie and Gene Scott helped him overcome this. Howard Cosell wasn’t exactly Bud Collins as a tennis announcer. What Cosell did extremely well was to set up Rosie and Gene for their analysis of the match and explanation of tennis terms.

At the same time I understand why Cosell was chosen to be the announcer for the match. This was clearly not an ordinary tennis match. It was more like a World Championship Boxing Match or the Super Bowl in American football in its atmosphere. It was a big sporting event and Cosell was at that time a person who knew how to hype a big sporting event.

When I watched the match again it seemed to me that by today’s standards, Rosie’s remarks weren’t that derogatory. Of course this was 1973 and we didn’t have American comedians like David Letterman and Howard Stern who changed the environment of the media. I thought she and Gene Scott did an excellent job doing the commentary. They were concise and to the point in their analysis.

Clearly Rosie was the star of that particular broadcast. People remember that Billie Jean King won the match but the memory that sticks with many is Rosie Casals’ commentary. Whenever I saw Riggs on television in later years I would always think that he walks like a duck!

That’s my review of the broadcast. No one will ever mistake me for Roger Ebert, the famous American Film Critic as far as media reviews are concerned!

Here’s the link to the full match of King against Riggs.

Rosie Casals is in the Tennis Hall of Fame for good reasons. She was a tremendous player in both singles and doubles. She was instrumental in helping Women’s Tennis prosper and made her mark in some of the most historic matches in tennis history. Fans enjoyed her style and she was extremely popular.

Pancho Segura to me is in some ways a mythical type of figure. If you look at him at 5’6” tall he doesn’t look particularly imposing but once he got onto the tennis court he could defeat anyone in the world.

Segura was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador on June 20, 1921, and moved to the United States in 1940 as a teen. Segura learned to play tennis at the Guayaquil Tennis Club where his father was the caretaker. He practiced against the wall as many greats have done in the past. He watched players hit with one hand on both backhand and forehand and decided to hit with two sides on the forehand side. Segura, in contrast to the players today hit with a one-handed backhand and a two-handed forehand, the reverse of most players today!

Some have described his two-handed righty forehand as similar to Jimmy Connors’ lefty backhand except much better! The similarities make some sense I suppose since Segura was one of the early teachers of Jimmy Connors along with his mother and grandmother.

In fantasy you read about the sword of King Arthur’s Excalibur and currently in movies and comics Mjolnir which is the Hammer of Thor. These are invincible weapons in which the wielder who holds it would be unbeatable. Well, that’s the impression I have gotten from reading about the legendary Pancho Segura two-handed forehand. The players who saw Segura hit it viewed it as the ulƟmate tennis weapon.

Years ago I had a long and enlightening discussion with a former great player and a tournament director of one of the big tournaments in the United States. This former player has seen all the great forehands from the 1950s onwards I would suppose. He has seen the forehands of Nadal, Federer, Borg, Lendl, Nastase, Newcombe, Laver, Sampras, Agassi and yet he had no doubt that the greatest forehand he had ever seen was the Segura two-handed forehand!

He explained to me that Segura could do anything with the shot and he had incredible control and disguise if I recall correctly.

Many haven’t just described the Segura forehand as just the best forehand but the best single shot they have ever seen!

I believe players like Pancho Gonzalez, Jack Kramer and Ellsworth Vines called it the greatest single stroke in tennis history. Others like Laver called it the finest forehand he had seen. To put this in perspective Laver played Segura when he was past age 40. Clearly at that point in his career Segura was way past his prime and yet Laver still ranked it the best forehand he’d seen up to that point.

Jack Kramer in his book “Jack Kramer-How to Play Your Best Tennis All the Time” wrote that unless you put the ball within three to four feet within the baseline that Segura could use his two-handed forehand to put away the ball most of the time! That to me is an incredible statement and indicates how much of a weapon the Segura forehand was.

Segura’s game according to Ellsworth Vines’ great book Tennis-Myth and Method and I quote; Two-fisted forehand is most outstanding stroke in game’s history; unbeatable unless opponent could avoid it. Improved as professional by taking advantage of volleying ability he rarely used as amateur. Backhand also better later career. Returns serve brilliantly, particularly off right side where quicksilver moves give him unusual positioning talent. Serve only average for his class of player but well placed, as is overhead. Very deft volleyer, particularly off forehand. Lob and dropshot unsurpassed. Superb passing shots, change of pace and absolute consistency make him the greatest “little man” to ever play the game.

That’s very impressive considering that Vines ranks Segura over small great players like Ken Rosewall, Bobby Riggs and others. Vines ranked Segura the number 5 player who played after World War II, just behind greats like Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez and Rod Laver. He is ahead of Riggs, Rosewall, Sedgman, Hoad and Trabert on Vines’ list.

Segura won three straight US Pros from 1950 to 1952 which was a huge tournament on the Professional Tour in those days. In winning the three US Pros he defeated Pancho Gonzalez twice and Frank Kovacs! Gonzalez had been called the GOAT by many and this was his prime. Kovacs was a terrific player.

He also crushed Frank Parker and Bobby Riggs on a tour in 1950. In his career Segura won 68 tournaments and a number of Pro Tours.

Segura was also known for his outstanding knowledge of the game. He coached a number of players including Stan Smith, Andre Agassi and of course perhaps his top pupil, Jimmy Connors. In Vic Braden’s excellent book Mental Tennis, Braden wrote “Segura was one of the best thinkers and strategists I’ve ever seen in the game and one of the most underrated players in the history of tennis!”

It’s clear that very few if anyone in the history of tennis knew more about playing the game than Pancho Segura.

An interesting stat about Segura is that he played the third highest number of matches in tennis history with 2037 matches played. He is only behind Ken Rosewall at 2375 matches and Bill Tilden at 2123 matches and slightly ahead of Rod Laver who played 1989 matches and Pancho Gonzalez who played 1918 matches. Roger Federer, for example who also seemed to play forever, is far behind Segura at 1531.

Clearly Pancho Segura is one of the most important figures in tennis history and a great player who is often forgotten today!

My great thanks to Greg Gonzalez and especially Rosie Casals for their kind help researching this article.

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer and tennis historian who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and Check out Raymond Lee's Articles: Why Novak Djokovic Will Win 30 Slams, Celebrating 50th Anniversary of John Newcombe's 1973 US Open Win, One for One: Who's The GOAT For One Match? and Holy Grail: Why Winning the Calendar Grand Slam is Toughest Task in Sport.


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