‘Just hit the ball over the net and run like hell… anyone can play tennis’

by Gazette Reporter
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June Ann Byrne on being crowned World Champion at 85

A LIFE LESS ordinary is a phrase that springs to mind when you meet Dundrum resident June Ann Byrne.

At the age of 87 she can look back on an outstanding tennis career – playing Wimbledon, reaching the semi-finals of Roland Garros in 1958, taking titles in California and British Columbia, and becoming World Champion at 85.

But listing her achievements is merely scratching the surface. What lies beneath is a warm, generous, driven and determined woman with an enviable energy and lust for life.

Going back to the beginning June Ann, originally from Cobh, recalls: “It started when I was 13. I saw some people playing tennis and I thought it was a gorgeous game.

Word Champion at 85

MEET tennis ace June Ann Byrne, a grandmother of ten who was crowned World Champion at the age of 85 – and is still going strong.Read the full story and many more in this week's FREE Dublin Gazette – Digital Edition here – https://dublingazette.com/digital-gazette/dublin-gazette-digital-edition-11-june-2020/

Posted by Dublin Gazette on Friday, June 12, 2020

“My father joined me in Rushbrooke, Co Cork and they had a beautiful practice wall there. I’d go down and play against the wall.

“Playing against the wall you get very agile, you get very switched on and you get wonderful footwork if you do it properly.

“I never had a lesson, never needed one. I figured you just hit the ball over the net into the court and run like hell…

“To play tennis all you need is a bat, a ball and a wall. You’ll never beat a wall, remember that. The ball always comes back.

“Tennis like all sports is a mind game. And life is mind over matter.”

June Ann started playing just after the end of World War II and moved to Dublin as a teenager. She won the U.15 and U.18 national championships four years in a row and was asked by Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne to coach kids in the inner city.

She told Dublin Gazette: “I went up every Sunday from 10 to 6, to Mountjoy Square, Hill Street, Pearse Street and Pearse Square, from the age of 15 to 20. I got to know the kids very well, I thought they were super.

“They only had two outfits and they would wear their Sunday best to come and play tennis. They had paddle bats made from rejected pieces of plywood. I got all the rejected tennis balls from Mount Temple and off we’d go.

“I had a few cups I had won and I got my name erased and gave all the cups to the inner city tournament. Well they were delighted. They all loved it.”

Serena Williams, Stefi Graff and Martina Navratilova are all household names, but a young June Ann Fitzpatrick was a regular at Wimbledon before they were even born.

She first stepped onto the grass courts of SW19 at the tender age of 17 and became a regular at the sport’s most prestigious tournament.

June Ann recalls: “I played junior Wimbledon at the age of 17, just after I finished my exams in 1951. I got up from my paper from the Leaving Cert to catch the boat over to play in Junior Wimbledon.

“Then in the seniors I got as far as the last 16 ladies doubles and mixed doubles. I never had an argument with a linesman, an umpire, a referee or another player.

“I just had great fun, I loved playing tennis. They had a fabulous practice wall there.”

June Ann was invited to the centenary event at Roland Garos in France last year. As the only Irish person ever to play there she got to the semi-finals and played centre court.

During her early 20s a fearless June Ann struck out for America on her own having landed a teaching job in San Francisco.

She was made a member of the California club on account of her ranking, and lost no time in clinching the singles title there at the age of 22.

She played tournaments during the summer holidays, then began to study by night at university to become an occupational therapist.

She shrugged: “In the States you either make it or break it. I figured I got the chance to go out there so I was going to make it. I thought ‘if you really want something why not work at it?’.”

June Ann was a trail blazer from an early age. She preferred to play hurling with the boys than hockey with the girls, made her own clothes, always wore shorts on court and refused to bow down on matters of principle.

At just 13 she clashed with the Mother Superior at school when she was ordered to wear long sleeves to play a tournament. June Ann produced a letter from her father and “the upshot was none of us girls had to wear long sleeves”.

Her grit and determination saw her through on many a challenging occasion, including an exhibition match at Fordham University that tested her mettle.

She said: “The court was stretched canvas over wood, very fast. I said ‘June Ann, you either run away, burst into tears or play your best game of tennis’. I won my third game 6-4 6-2 and that made my name.”

When she returned to Ireland June Ann taught at Cheeverstown House and has fond memories of her time there.

She revealed: “They were little sweethearts. I’d say ‘listen gang, I think we should all get out of bed’. I’d bring big bouncing balls for them. I got them all out. I had them moving around outside.

“One little lad only had one leg, I had a little crutch made for him so he could kick a ball about. These youngsters were quite sick and they were going to be there for weeks and months.

“I used to bring in books and we would read them. When I got married I had to give up my job. That was a bit of a tear. I thought who was going to teach those little kids?”

June Ann settled in Dundrum and had four children, bringing up a fifth whose mother died. But despite her hectic home life she kept up her fitness and her tennis.

She has played all over the world – Russia, Italy, France, Australia, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, Germany. But the pinnacle of her career came in 2018 when she entered the World Championships.

The only Irish competitor among a field of 700, she won the over-85 women’s doubles title at the ITF Super Seniors World Championships in Croatia with Dutch player Wil Sevenstern.

“Not only did I win,” she said, “but I was voted captain of the universe, imagine that!”

She admitted: “I went over there to win. Somebody has to win so why not me? We beat the number one seeds in the semi-final and the number two seeds in the final.”

At 5ft 9in June Ann’s height was a natural advantage, but her fitness and agility were also key to her success.

Hers is a familiar face out and about in Dundrum and her themed birthday parties – which double as fundraisers for charity – are now the stuff of legend.

“I haven’t taken a birthday present since I was 50,” she revealed. “My kids wanted to buy me stuff, but I’d say ‘what do I need would you mind telling me?’ I’ve everything, my health is my wealth.

“The parties in Carrickmines Tennis Club are great fun. One year we raised over e3,000 for the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind.”

June Ann turned 87 on Tuesday (June 9) and marked the occasion with a socially distanced picnic with her peers in a field.

She said: “I’ve done a lot and kept myself busy since lockdown. I’m up every morning and I’m off somewhere. But why not – life is for living.”

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