Hats off to Jimbo for discovering this articel about June Fitzpatrick, Irish player from the 1950s.
JUNE ANN FITZPATRICK-BYRNE
‘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?’.[i] It was the autumn of 1955 and Ireland’s indomitable ladies champion had just begun her American conquest with a famous televised victory at Fordham University.
June Ann blames her older brother Gerry for starting her tennis career. On her thirteenth birthday, her father gifted her a tennis racket. ‘Gerry remarked that I wouldn’t be able to hit the house with a ball if I was standning 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, the Cork-born engineer 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.[ii]
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 pine cones, or torytops, which she collected as a child.
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.[iii]
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.[iv] ‘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.[v] 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 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.[vi] ‘They presented me with an enormous cup but I couldn’t take it home because you weren’t allowed to take any silver out of Britain in those days. So I took it 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’.[vii]
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.[viii] She was ostensibly there 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 grandson of former US President Taft.
Before her teaching job began, she was briefly adopted by Gussie Moran, the 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.[ix]
Early the next year, June Ann arrived in San Francisco.[x] 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!’[xi]
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’.[xii] She also won several doubles contests; her American partner ‘was a good player but I’d have walloped her in a sink!’
June Ann remained in the US for just under three years and qualified as an occupational therapist. In 1957, she got to the quarter-finals 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.[xiii]
In 1959 she married engineer Bernard Le Cesne Byrne and settled on a windy country lane just outside Dundrum.[xiv] ‘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’.[xv]
‘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.[xvi] The Evergreens compete in contests all over the world and were at one point ranked No. 5. 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.’