Each month in 2021, WTA Charities will be featuring a member of the WTA family as the Community Hero of the Month for their work to make their communities a better place. This month’s Hero is former Australian player, Louise Pleming, who’s organization RALLY4EVER works to help people with mental health issues through community and movement. WTA Charities has also awarded the program one of the WTA Charities’ community fund grants for Pleming’s work.

For more information on the organization or to donate, visit www.RALLY4EVER.org.

When former WTA Tour player Louise Pleming signed up to volunteer at a kitchen for homeless people in inner-city Sydney, she could not have imagined the impact the decision would have on so many lives – including her own.

Four years later, the respected high-performance coach and television commentator spearheads RALLY4EVER, a not-for-profit that encourages greater community connection through physical activity – with an unsurprising emphasis on the benefits of tennis for mental health and overall sense of well-being.

The catalyst, Pleming explains, was a chance meeting a homeless man called Brian, who recognized her from TV and asked if she would play tennis with him.

“I said, ‘Sure, give me your telephone number,’ recalls Pleming, who was a Top 100 doubles player in the 1990s. “But when he told me he lived under a bush by a tennis court, I quickly realized it was stupid of me to assume he had a telephone.

“So we set a time to play at 7:00 a.m., on a Monday, but when the morning came, it was pouring with rain and I thought there was no way we would be able to play. However, I didn’t have a way to contact Brian, so I went to the court and there he was, with a racquet and balls, ready to go. And he was a very good player – earlier in his life he had played a little, trying to get some points on the ITF circuits in Europe.

“But then he ended up in a mental hospital at the age of 24 and has been in out of institutions for quite a few years.”

The pair continued to meet up for a hit and as their bond grew, Pleming saw a significant shift in Brian’s mentality, thanks to the sporting outlet and the human connection that came with it. In time they agreed that Brian should give competition a go, and Pleming drove him to a small event sanctioned by Tennis Australia in the country town of Goulburn, a couple of hours outside Sydney. 

But the day didn’t go as well as they’d hoped. Playing a much younger opponent, a nervous Brian managed to win a couple of games but became increasingly frustrated and upset with himself – to the point that the tournament referee suspended the match, despite Pleming’s pleas for Brian to be allowed to finish.

The friends returned to the city separately and a week later, Pleming received a call from Tennis Australia’s integrity department.

“I thought I was going to be in trouble,” she admits. “But all they wanted to talk about was how they could help, how we could work together more closely, and how they could prepare officials to better deal with such situations.”

While that call led to a closer and highly productive working relationship with the sport’s governing body, Pleming was also encouraged by a groundswell of support from current and former players, including Alexandra Osborne and recently retired Jessica Moore, who helped build awareness of RALLY4EVER’s mission.

High profile fitness instructors, tennis clubs, local councils, charity sector experts and the corporate community also weighed in as Pleming formalized RALLY4EVER and learned more about the disadvantaged groups who might benefit from the foundation’s services.

While free tennis, yoga, Pilates and fitness classes for the homeless and others in need remain at the heart of RALLY4EVER, the organization now also offers online classes for a wider audience, motivated by a desire to fight isolation and lift community spirits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Daily sessions were even held ahead of the recent Australian swing, with players and support staff undertaking the mandatory 14-day quarantine in mind; Sam Stosur and Daria Gavrilova were among the Aussie tennis stars who helped generate buzz for the classes.

A key motivator for Pleming and RALLY4EVER is the realization that services for mental health patients very often don’t have the resources to focus on physical activities.

“They want to,” Pleming says, “but they just don’t know how, and that’s where we come in. We want to become the facilitator: the link between mental health and the tennis community. We want to open-up the doors for everyone, give people the confidence to sign up for a tennis program and know they will be accepted.

“Mental health issues don’t pick and choose, they chase anyone. It’s everyday people feeling stuck and we are here to help.”

Photo by RALLY4EVER

To this end, the RALLY4EVER team have reached out to diverse organizations and are set to start working with Hope Street, a Melbourne-based place of refuge for women and children who’ve been affected by domestic violence. The goal is to help alleviate stress and anxiety through exercise, tennis, and fun.

And last month, RALLY4EVER joined forces with former Australian soccer star and activist Craig Foster to host a tennis session for recently released refugees, who were treated to coaching tips from Australian luminaries John Millman, Matt Reid and Paul McNamee.

“These gentlemen had never played, and they were so excited,” Pleming said.

“They have gone through a lot of sadness and trauma and will be living off charity for a while. They don’t have money to spend on exercise, so that’s how RALLY4EVER wants to step in. We want to help them heal and regain their self-esteem and independence, so they feel they are part of the Australian community. We want to be part of the process of getting their lives back on track – with tennis as a vehicle.

“There are really two key ingredients in what we do: community and movement,” Pleming adds. “The combination of those is powerful in helping people create momentum in their lives again.”

With big dreams for the organization’s future, Pleming is in talks with the manufacturers of racquets, shoes and clothing – while also exploring the fundraising networks needed to create sustainable programs.

“Volunteers are fantastic, and we have so many great people reaching out, but we don’t expect them to stay for the long term,” Pleming explains. “We want to make this a circular economy; anything that comes into our organization, we want to send out into the communities so that we can set up more programs, in other cities and small country towns – any areas where they are struggling."

True to her word, Pleming and RALLY4EVER have partnered with Gavrilova, who started a bracelet company while in quarantine last year, Dash.lets, with snug fitting bracelets that be won during physical activity. All proceeds will be going to RALLY4EVER with the Dash.lets Instagram sending people to donate on the RALLY4EVER page.

Photo by RALLY4EVER

“We are currently reliant on the incredible generosity of various trainers, court providers and other supporters, while we secure our core partnerships and grants. In addition, we have some very generous ambassadors coming on board, which we will be announcing soon. We really are humbled by the people that want to rally with us!”

From that first chance meeting with Brian which provided insight into the challenges faced by the homeless, Pleming says she is humbled by RALLY4EVER’s journey so far and is motivated to help keep transforming lives.

“I wasn’t a top player, but I really connected to the sport and love the people in it,” she says. “I grew up on a farm outside of Wagga Wagga, and when I saw Evonne Goolagong play at Wimbledon, she gave me that dream to go play tennis. I’d love to pass that on to somebody else, because tennis is a sport for life.”

To find out how you can contribute, visit RALLY4EVER.org.