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June Ann Fitzpatrick-Byrne – Ireland’s Tennis Star of the 1940 and 1950s

Roland Garros (French Open) 1958: Semi-Finals (doubles). Wimbledon 1957: Quarter-Finals (mixed and ladies doubles). Irish Senior Ladies Championships: 2 (1950, 1951). Irish Under 18s Ladies Championships: 2 (1949, 1950). Irish Under 15s Ladies Championships: 2 (1946, 1947) Fitzwilliam Cup: 4. Festival of Britain Championship: 1951 (singles). Championships of Northern California: 1955. British Columbia Championship: 1955. Championships of Oregon and Washington: 1955. Senior Titles: Netherlands, Russia, the Baltic States, Australia (No. 2 in 2005), South of France (aged 75.)

 

 

‘And so, I thought, now I can either burst into tears and run off the court, or I can get my little act together.’

At the age of 21, the girl from Co. Cork had just received the first avalanche of knock up balls across the net from the reigning New York ladies champion.

‘They came so fast I didn’t see them, but I got my little act together and I won 6-4, 6-2 … and why not?’.

It was the autumn of 1955 and Ireland’s indomitable ladies champion had just begun her American conquest with a famous victory at Fordham University, one of the first televised events of its kind. [1]

June Ann blames her older brother Gerry for starting her tennis career after a remark on her thirteenth birthday after her father had gifted her a tennis racket.

‘Gerry said that I wouldn’t be able to hit the house with a ball if I was standing beside it’, she says, eyes narrowing. ‘I’ve never had an argument, but I will fight all the way. That was the challenge and I decided I was going to play tennis’.

June-Ann’s father was John Fitzpatrick, a Cork-born engineer and keen environmentalist who, amongst many achievements, installed central heating in Leinster House, won the coveted Whitworth Award, founded the Welding Society of Ireland, and orchestrated the rural drainage programme in the Midlands and West. John, who died in April 1988, spent much of his early career at Haulbowline in his native Cork where his daughter was born in 1933.

The Fitzpatricks lived just in the village of Rushbrooke on the Great Island in Cork Harbour, where John was engaged in rebuilding the naval pier at Cobh and working with the Irish Naval Service. The pinewoods around her home would later inspire June Ann to call her Dublin house ‘Torytops’ after the pinecones, or torytops, which she collected as a child.

June Ann Fitzpatrick. Photo: James Fennell.

The Rushbrooke Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is the oldest tennis club in Ireland, and it was here that June Ann first mastered the sport. She started out as something of a tomboy, albeit a well-dressed one. ‘There were no other girls playing’, she says. ‘I loved the tennis outfits, and I made my own dresses. My skirts were very short, but I had little trousers underneath to keep me decent.’

‘I liked the whole idea of sport because it lifted people’s spirits. These were the Dark Ages. The war had devastated Europe and it was all very depressed.’

At 5 foot 8 ½, she was undoubtedly a daunting opponent, not least up at the net. She was also equally good on the left or right, forehand or backhand, enabling her to outfox the opposition in doubles matches by swapping positions.

In the summer of 1947, she entered the Munster Under 15s championship and won. ‘And why not?’ She then made her way to Dublin where she won the Leinster and Ulster Championships, as well as the Fitzwilliam Cup, to become Ireland’s Under 15 champion. She won the same quartet the following year. Her success compelled Dublin’s Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne to invite her to teach tennis to the children of Dublin’s post-war slums on Mountjoy Square and Pearse Street.

Every Sunday she would give lessons to a large group of youngsters from the inner city, while several hundred spectators stood and watched. ‘I was very happy-go-lucky’, she recalls, ‘but tennis is a game of common sense. If you can keep getting the ball over the net and into the other court, you will win.’

In 1948, Tennis Ireland secured her a week’s training, from 7-8.15 every morning. Her coach was Hank Quinn, the man who trained the US Davis Cup team to victory that same year. ‘If you have too many lessons, it can kill your natural instinct’, warns June Ann. ‘But I was a very lucky little girl to have lessons from him.’

They met on the grass courts of the old Fitzwilliam Club on Lad Lane. [2] ‘He told me tennis is 90% footwork and if you don’t get that right, you may as well stay in bed.’ He also taught her how to serve. ‘Throw up the ball, move your hips, put your whole weight into it, keep your eye on the ball and don’t drop your head.’

At lunchtime she cycled back to the club from her school at the Sacred Heart on Leeson Street to serve over and over again ‘maybe a thousand times until I got it right.’ It helped that the US team had a ready supply of the very latest tennis equipment. ‘In Ireland, tennis balls were like gold dust at this time … and to wear a pair of rubber shoes, that was amazing!’

In 1947 and 1948, June Ann won the Irish Under 18s championships. She also won the Fitzwilliam four times – twice at Under 15 and twice at Under 18. At the age of 16, she was selected for the Irish international team and embarked on a six-week tour of England, playing doubles with Angela Clarke, and mixed with Brian Ellis. She won every match she played in.

Shortly after she completed her leaving cert, she went to Junior Wimbledon where she was beaten by the eventual tournament champion, Lorna Cornell, 16-14 in the final set. Gerry also competed that year and the Fitzpatricks were thus apparently the first brother and sister to play at Wimbledon together.

In 1949 and 1950, she won the Irish senior ladies championships. And in May 1951, she won the Festival of Britain tennis championship. The contest was only open to British citizens, but John Fitzpatrick successfully argued that, by dint of his being born in Ireland when it was part of Britain, his daughter was surely eligible. When a thankful June Ann asked how she could possibly repay him, he replied: ‘Win the bloody thing’.

And so she did.

‘They presented me with an enormous cup, but I couldn’t take it home because in those days you had to get government permission to bring money from Ireland to UK. You weren’t allowed to take any silver out either, so I took the cup to an uncle of mine who was a jeweller in London and he put my name on it in huge writing just to make sure everyone knew it was mine’.

In November 1954, the 21-year-old Irish champion crossed the Atlantic on the ocean liner, ss America, to begin a three-year sojourn in the USA. Tennis Ireland organized a reception committee, neatly capped by the presentation of several new rackets from Dunlop’s (made to measure), while Slazenger were also ‘good to me.’ [3]

June Ann was ostensibly in the US to look after 35 post-war baby boomers at the Sacred Heart primary school in San Francisco. Her green card application was undoubtedly helped by the fact that one of her regular opponents at the Fitzwilliam was William Howard Taft, US Ambassador to Ireland and a grandson of former US President Taft.

Before her teaching job began, she was briefly adopted by Gussie Moran, an Irish-American tennis star who had electrified the 1949 Wimbledon final by sporting an extremely short tennis dress with ruffled, lace-trimmed knickers peeping out below the hem. ‘Gorgeous Gussie’ became an inspiration to June Ann and helped get her a short-term job in Macey’s, selling German and Belgian handbags.

With her pocket money, she purchased some very chic outfits, to wear along with those she made herself. Three-time Wimbledon champion Fred Perry, who was ‘very kind to the Irish’, also gave her shoes, skirts, t-shirts, and socks.

In early 1955, June Ann arrived at the Sacred Heart in San Francisco, a sister school of the one where she was educated on Leeson Street, Dublin. The convent had its own tennis courts where she could practice. Having already defeated the New York champion, June Ann entered the Northern California Championships reasoning that ‘even if this was America, there was only going to be one person the other side of the net so why shouldn’t I be able to beat them?’ She duly knocked out a Whiteman Cup champion and defeated the Japanese No. 1 to win the trophy which now hangs proudly on her wall.

‘That was a very prestigious tournament so it meant I could now travel around the USA, all expenses paid! I had great fun. I met the present Queen, the presidents of the United States … you just do if you’re on top. They like to meet you. Its good publicity for them’

She travelled for the three-month school holidays, winning several more trophies including the British Columbia championship for which she was ranked as the No. 1 seed.

‘The evening before it I got an invitation to tea with the Governor General, which was quite something for a little Catholic girl from Co. Cork. They were so nice that I had to win it … I got invited to play in Forest Hills, but I couldn’t play because school had started. I had to go to school. I couldn’t ask for time off.’

She also won several doubles contests; her American partner ‘was a good player but I’d have walloped her in a sink!’ While in California, she studied occupational therapy at a university and span down to Mexico for a few weeks.

June Ann remained in the US for just under three years and qualified as an occupational therapist. In 1957, she got to the quarterfinals in both the mixed and ladies doubles at Wimbledon. The following year, she ‘trotted off’ to Paris for the Roland Garros where she reached the semi-finals in the mixed but lost while leading in the final set when her partner stood on a ball and broke his ankle. Although she was now working full-time, she also went to Wimbledon, reaching the final 16 in both the ladies and mixed doubles.

Her brother Gerry also played at Wimbledon that year, establishing another first for a brother and sister at Wimbledon. Gerry had won the 1948 and 1949 Junior Irish championships and played on the Davis Cup team. He seemed destined for greatness but tragically broke his hip, knee and ankle while playing rugby for Palmerston Rugby Club against Trinity College in his early 20s.

On 1 June 1959 June Ann was married in Rathgar to the engineer Bernard Le Cesne Byrne, who died in 2006. They settled on a windy country lane just outside Dundrum where, in 1961, they rather fittingly built a new house on the site of an abandoned tennis court attached to an old Victorian mansion house that had belonged to the Murrays.

‘It was all farmland around here then. Sheep were always wandering onto our lawn and Dundrum was still a village where people got their messages delivered. It had Dundrum had Levett & Frys, Findlater’s, two chemists and two butchers. We lived near Lynnwood where Lefroy Brooks of Brooks Thomas lived and bred Irish wolfhounds.’

Dundrum was particularly well-suited to a tennis star given the high number of courts around. Despite her Catholic upbringing, she had no qualms about frequenting the Church of Ireland courts by the rectory in Taney before they were sold off to make way for residential flats. [4]

‘I’m supposedly retired’, she says, ‘but life is for living.’ And live she does. She frequently walks in the French Pyrenees, 20 km a day if she can. She raised a small fortune for the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind walking the 2009 mini-marathon in Dublin. She regularly tinkles upon the piano to keep her fingers and brain agile. She takes a daily dose of oils – primrose, cod liver and flax – and dotes upon her border collie Scooter.

Tennis remains at the epicentre of her life. And perhaps June Ann’s proudest achievements was the founding of the Irish Evergreens, a club dedicated to developing tournaments for tennis players aged 40 and over. As she says, tennis is one of the rare sports where you can keep playing in later years. [5] Indeed, there are now World Championships for the 40s, 45s, 50s, 55s, 60s, 65s, 70s, 75s and, for men, 80s and 85s.

June Ann, who was on the World Council for Tennis many years ago, continued to win awards at this level. In 1988, she led four women from Ireland to play Hungary. She also brought a team to Russia circa 1990 and won the singles and ladies doubles. She was presented with an old plate by Princess Anna Romanov, one of the last of the dynasty, a nonagenarian who came clad in ermine and thanked her for coming to ‘our country’. Apparently there used to be about 300 tennis clubs in St Petersburg (a city built on islands).

The Evergreens compete in contests all over the world and were at one point ranked No. 5. [6] In 2005, she went to the Australian championships where she became the No. 2 ‘Over 70’ player in the world. ‘You’ve got to see the funny side of it. If I’m playing in my age group, I can’t do much damage.’

 

 

With thanks to Tara Treacy.

 

End-Notes

 

[1] There was a particularly good audience for the match, played on the courts of Fordham University in upstate New York, as it was one of the first to be televised. ‘I had never seen television’, marvels June Ann.

[2] Sir Basil Goulding was President of the Fitzwilliam LTC at this time.

[3] She has an impressive collection of ladies and men’s rackets dating back to the 1880s, which were tiny-headed things, gradually bent by steam over several weeks and held together by a brass screw. They have frames to stop them from warping. Some were crafted in Scotland, others made by Elvery’s of Dublin & London or strung by ‘J. Dowling, Baggot Street’. The pressure of tennis balls has changed. Today, she plays with light titanium Prince rackets.

[4] ‘I had hoped Taney might become a sports centre for the community, but the man in charge wasn’t sporting minded at all’, she sighs. She also played at Dundrum Tennis Club (part of Taney). There are still four courts in Taney, surrounded by flats.

[5] ‘I realized there was nothing for older tennis players so I started the Irish Evergreens. You have to be over 40 to join it. That has done terribly well. We play in different clubs around Ireland and we play in Spain’.

[6] They also played in Perth, W. Australia, where Ireland fielded three ladies teams. Little Ireland’s Over 65s Evergreens once got to No. 5 in the world, beating France and Brazil (possibly Argentina). ‘We never came last or second last and we were the smallest country in it’.

As a senior, she has personally won championships in the Netherlands, Russia, the Baltic States and south of France (aged 75). In 2005, the 72-year-old became No. 2 in Australia in 2005. She even pretended to be a man to help win one such contest. ‘There was no money in it. It was the honour of being accepted and of winning’.

She occasionally comes up against old rivals from the 1950s US and UK circuit also.