Gifted Irish tennis player who achieved his ultimate goal, playing against his hero, Bjorn Borg, writes Rory Egan
Tommy Burke, the much-loved Irish international tennis player, died prematurely at the age of 55, two weeks ago. One of the most resolute and dedicated tennis players in the country his death came as a great shock to those that knew him as he was practically a poster boy for fitness and healthy living throughout his life.
Tommy was born in 1956 to Bluff and Tommy Burke, both prominent sports personalities in their own right. His father, Tommy Snr, was the Irish 100m record holder and one of the best rugby players in the country before he injured himself just before his trial for the great 1948 Grand Slam-winning team. However, it was his mother, Bluff, an inter-provincial tennis and hockey player, who first put a tennis racquet in Tommy's hands at the age of three and the rest, as they say, is history.
He excelled at all sports in both St Michael's and later Blackrock College where he was educated but he was forced to choose between rugby and tennis and chose the latter. He was selected to be coached by Mark Cox, the English international, when he held a clinic in Dublin. Cox picked Tommy out as having almost perfect technique, his powerful serve in particular.
Tommy joined Clermont Tennis club and won the club championship at the age of 17 and repeated the task a further four times. He went to UCD, studying for a Bachelor in Commerce degree and played in many intervarsity matches.
Tommy was part of an extremely gifted group of tennis players of that time which included Sean Sorensen, Robin Gibney and Declan Heavey. In 1976 he won the Leinster Open Championship beating the number one seed, Ken Fitzgibbon, after losing the first set 9-7. It seemed to light a fire in Tommy and he embarked on a glittering career in the game. In 1978 he reached his ultimate goal, playing for Ireland against Sweden and Bjorn Borg, his great hero, in the Davis Cup. For the next five years he played against Luxembourg, Monaco, Finland, Switzerland and Italy in Davis Cup matches and represented his country many times in King's Cup and home internationals.
He won all the major championships in the country and went on to win his own club championships with equal ease -- Lansdowne nine times and Fitzwilliam four times. He even represented Ireland as a veteran, as did his brother John, and was a founding member and president of the International Club of Ireland. He joined Milltown Golf club in 1997 and won the captain's prize and the golfer of the year that same year.
But this doesn't come close to describing the real Tommy Burke. His number one priority was always his family and as a husband to Amanda and father to Rebecca, Christina and Robert he was gentle and caring. He found out all about hockey when Robert started playing -- he later became a schoolboy international.
He was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, last year and thought he had beaten it but he relapsed. When he was in St Vincent's Hospital last month his mother Bluff visited him. Seeing her distress he took her hand and said: "Everything is fine, mum. I'm OK." He died two days later but Tommy Burke's thoughts, as always, were for others and not himself.