Ireland's 85-year-old world champion: ‘I haven't got the full use of my right shoulder but I can ace you serving underarm’

June Ann Byrne won the over-85 women’s doubles title at the ITF Super-Seniors World Championships two weeks ago alongside Dutch player Wil Sevenstern. Byrne, who is originally from Cobh and now lives in Dundrum, is a member of Carrickmines and Rushbrooke Tennis Clubs.

Ireland's 85-year-old world champion: ‘I haven't got the full use of my right shoulder but I can ace you serving underarm’

June Ann Byrne won the over-85 women’s doubles title at the ITF Super-Seniors World Championships two weeks ago alongside Dutch player Wil Sevenstern. Byrne, who is originally from Cobh and now lives in Dundrum, is a member of Carrickmines and Rushbrooke Tennis Clubs.

Q: When did you take up tennis?

A: I was 13 when I took it up. I started playing tennis against the wall at Rushbrooke and I got very good. When people were short of someone to play in a double, they’d always ask me and I was just thrilled. I loved playing.

Q: What year was that?

A: I’m 85, so about 1946.

Q: Being just after the war and rationing, was it a tough time?

A: It was a very strangled country. Everything was restricted, especially if you were a female.

Q: Were other girls playing at the time?

A: I don’t know. I usually played with boys because it wasn’t the in-thing for girls to play. If you played sports, you were a bit strange... But it didn’t bother me. I had great fun!

Q: Was it long before you started taking tennis very seriously?

A: I never had formal lessons but I won Fitzwilliam U15s, when I was 14 and 15, and twice at U18s. I’d always stop in September because we had no hard courts anywhere and I played hockey. I loved my hockey. Then, first of April, I’d be back playing tennis again. I was No.1 here, senior and junior, when I was 17.

Q: You played in America too?

A: I got a teaching job in San Francisco and went to university again to do occupational therapy. In the meantime, I beat two Wightman Cup players to win the big championships in California and with that went a scholarship. I couldn’t play in Forest Hills or Flushing Meadows [US Open] because school started on September 4 and I had to be back.

Q: How often do you train nowadays?

A: Before we went [to the worlds], I did about three months intensive practice myself. I don’t blame other people for my inadequacies. I practice a lot against the wall; precision, mental control, footwork. I usually play with the 50-year-olds. They’re always very nice to me! Due to a very bad car accident, I haven’t got the full use of my right shoulder, so I’ve taught myself to serve underarm. I can ace you serving underarm, which is a shock to everybody.

Q: When was the accident?

A: It was about 22 or 23 years ago. I was out of tennis for about two-and-a-half years.

Q: What impact did it have on you?

A: It was dreadful. The other driver hit the young couple ahead of us too, their car was eliminated. It only hits you about four years later when the bones in your body start to disintegrate. They did an emergency operation on me in Birmingham. I have two colossal big rods keeping my head on my shoulders. That’s a fact. My head doesn’t turn but I’ve taught myself how to turn right around on my hips. People don’t believe this! Life is for living and I enjoy living and life, put it that way.

Q: Tell me about the world championships in Croatia...

A: I went over to win, believe it or not. Someone has to win it and why shouldn’t it be me? That’s the way I look on life, actually. I was playing with a very nice Dutch lady who had never played at that standard. She said, ‘Will you help me?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ She had a special place she liked to stand on the court. She liked to serve from a special place. I can play from any place so I agreed with her and we worked on those conditions. I will run after everything and try to get it back.

Q: How did it feel to win gold?

A: We beat the number-one seed in the semi-final and the number-two seed in the final. It was lovely. I won gold and when they were presenting me with my medal in the big arena with my name in lights and my Irish flag too, the chief said to me, ‘Congratulations. You’ve won gold, you’re number one in the world and no-one can ever take that from you.’ Everyone gave me a wonderful clap. I was delighted. I bounced up as usual. I was the only Irish person there [among 700 competitors].

Q: What are the highlights of your career?

A: Playing at Wimbledon (I was beaten eventually by the winner in the juniors, 16-14 in the final set after three-and-a-half hours), playing the French Open, winning the championships of British Colombia, playing on TV in New York when I was 21 and I hadn’t ever seen a television. The court was fast and I felt like running away or crying. I thought ‘you little cow, get on with it!’ I knuckled down and I won 6-4 6-2. I didn’t see the TV because I couldn’t take my eye off the ball or I’d be murdered!

I have had great fun playing tennis all around the world and I love representing my country. A very funny thing, when I was 17 it was the Queen’s Jubilee and they were having a big U21 tennis tournament in England. I wrote away to enter and I got a letter back saying it was only for GB citizens. My father said, ‘June Ann, you were born when we were still in the Commonwealth, so you’re entitled to play.’ Dad wrote off and I got a very nice letter back saying yes, you can play. I won it and someone said to me, ‘Was the Queen watching?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I was afraid to look! I’m jolly sure she wasn’t!’

There was no money in tennis in those days. You weren’t even allowed get money as a prize. Six of us went to play in about six tournaments in England when I was 16. I won the singles and I usually won the mixed doubles with a boy from Dublin, and you’d get a voucher and it’d always be for Harrods. What would I be doing in Harrods? But the secretary would take it and she’d give me — I’m not supposed to tell you — the money instead.

When myself and Heather Flynn got to the last-16 in Wimbledon, when the Davis Cup was here — and the Davis Cup is men only — the men going for it asked Heather and myself to pick the teams, which was unusual. The team did very well for those two years.

Q: I’m guessing you’ve no plans to step away from tennis at any point?

A: I would never separate from sport. I just love life and love people. When I was 14 or 15 I taught paddle tennis up in the inner city. Every Sunday, I used to cycle up from upper Rathmines to Mountjoy Square to teach the youngsters and play with them from 10am to 6pm. It was just after the war and they were very poor. They were also so nice. When I went up first, there was about 500 of them. I had many years up there. I played a lot of small tournaments and used to get little cups. I’m not really interested in cups — I just love playing — so I got all my little cups together, I got all the engravings wiped off and if you won the championships of the year up there, you got a cup. That’s what I did with my cups. It meant such a lot to them. I would still encourage anybody of any age to get out on court and enjoy themselves. All you need is a bat and a ball and someone to say ‘well done’!

Q: Are you planning to go back to the worlds next year to defend your title?

A: I don’t know. I just love playing tennis. I’m 85 so I don’t know what health condition I’ll be next year or what motorcar will eliminate me!

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