FLUSHING, QUEENS (PIX11)—Finola Spillane -- a tennis fan from County Kerry, Ireland -- finally made it to the U.S. Open this year, and in doing so, she's accomplished a feat called the "spectator" Grand Slam.
"Last year, for a 'big' birthday, my children gave me a trip to the United States -- all expenses paid -- so I could complete the spectator Grand Slam," Spillane, now 66, told PIX11, after making her first trip to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing-Meadows this weekend.
A resident of tourist-friendly Killarney, in scenic County Kerry, Spillane played tennis in high school, but gave it up when she married and had seven children. But at age 43, she picked up the racquet again, "when my children grew up, and I had no friends," Spillane explained.
The left-handed, 5'10" athlete loved the game so much that she formed the Killarney Tennis Club in 1990, playing mostly "doubles" on two, nearby hotel courts.
Spillane's children loved her so much that they started sending her on "dream" tennis excursions.
"The first one was Wimbledon, near London, and my son gave me a gift of two tickets to Centre Court, about 10 years-ago," Spillane recalled. "I adored it! I absolutely loved it. Getting the sense of the power of real tennis, when you hear the sound of it -- it's just so amazing."
Several years later, Spillane was in Paris on a 'cultural expedition' -- part of her attempt to become fluent in French. "I realized Roland Garros was on, so I snuck away for a day," Spillane told PIX 11. That's where the amateur Irish player saw Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska, currently ranked World Number 2, show her stuff.
In January 2011, Spillane saw an opportunity to make it to the slam Down Under, more than 10,000 miles from Ireland. "My daughter lives in Australia. I went to help her buy her wedding dress, and it just so happened to be the same time as the Australian Open," Spillane said tongue-in-cheek. That's where she saw one of her tennis favorites play, Belgium's Kim Clijsters.
Now, New Yorkers will be pleased to hear Spillane's impressions of the U.S. Open.
"The courtesy of everybody we met going in was just so impressive," Spillane said. "I loved the space of it! It seemed so much bigger than the other Slams."
For the record, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is 46.5 acres, with 22 courts. Its three stadiums are among the grandest in the world. Arthur Ashe, the biggest, has more than 23,000 seats, Louis Armstrong can seat 10,000 people, and the Grandstand holds more than 6,000 spectators.
Spillane attended the Open Saturday with her tennis friend from Killarney, Lynda O'Connor, and her niece, Frances Buckley, an Irish-born attorney. Buckley plays league tennis in Queens and won "first place" with two teams this year, both of them from the Douglaston Club, where former "Slam" winners John McEnroe and Mary Carillo learned to play the game in the 1960's and 70's.
Spillane told PIX11 she was welcoming the heat here in the States as a welcome change from the damp weather in Ireland, but even she had to admit 88 degrees was a bit steamy for watching tennis on Saturday. And forget about playing it! The Polish player, Radwanska, was quoted after her winning effort, "I was feeling like I was melting out there."
Spillane was disappointed that three-time, U.S. Open singles winner, Kim Clijsters, who is retiring, was eliminated from the tournament early: "I love watching Clijsters. Her personality. She's a wonderful tennis player. She has great heart." Spillane saw Clijsters lose her "mixed doubles" match Saturday with American partner, Bob Bryan. "I was sad for her. I would like to have seen her go a little further," she said.
Spillane -- a grandmother of 12 -- was able to enjoy a bit of friendly competition Sunday with some amateur tennis players, like herself, in Queens, most of them in their 40's and 50's. "I was very impressed at the level of fitness," Spillane said. "All of them work, and yet, they're out there early playing. The commitment by all those girls is fantastic," Spillane noted.
All that moving would make First Lady Michelle Obama proud. Mrs. Obama was featured in a Public Service Announcement at Arthur Ashe Stadium Saturday, promoting tennis as part of her "Let's Move" campaign.
As for Spillane, she will head home to County Kerry later this week, away from the hard courts at the U.S. Open to the "savannah" surface she plays on in Ireland. "It's an artificial grass, because of our advancing years," Spillane joked. Any long-time tennis player knows "hard court" can be punishing on the joints, but this lefty from Killarney could probably handle it!
Edited By Michelle Robinson