Mental health programs don’t usually come with a tennis racquet and ball, but Grand Slam commentator Louise Pleming is changing that.

The positive impact of a casual hit across the nets with a homeless man in Sydney sparked an idea for Ms Pleming that led to forming the not-for-profit Rally4Ever group, which is now expanding into western NSW.

She might have 12 International Tennis Federation doubles titles under her belt and coached elite players like Jelena Dokic, but Ms Pleming said her tennis these days isn’t about trophies, but building relationships.

A woman in a sports jumper stands with her arms crossed looking at the camera with tennis courts behind her

Tennis commentator Louise Pleming is using the sport to help improve mental health in country towns.(ABC Western Plains: Catherine James)

“Social connection is really important for mental wellbeing. It’s the number one thing,” she said.

“Sometimes we can be sitting next to someone and we don’t know how to start a conversation.

“But when you’re on a tennis court, it’s so easy to have a laugh and it’s really easy to encourage someone.”

A group of children line up with tennis racquets and balls as they prepare to hit the ball across the court

School classmates Charles, 11, and Alana, 10, (centre) are excited to play more tennis in their home town.(ABC Western Plains: Catherine James)

Rally4Ever already operates in more than 20 eastern NSW locations, providing free weekly tennis programs for more than 12,000 participants.

Ms Pleming hopes to grow those numbers by pushing into the state’s west.

A program with meaning

At least 40 children attended Rally4Ever’s launch in Nyngan, one of 11 country towns Ms Pleming stopped at with her team of professional coaches last month.

A woman in a black sport jacket smiles at the camera

Mission Australia’s Tara Brookman is thrilled about the tennis program for outback kids in Nyngan.(ABC Western Plains: Catherine James)

Mission Australia support worker Tara Brookman works with homeless children between the ages of 12 and 15, some of whom attended the session.

“A lot of kids struggle to get access to support systems; it’s very disadvantaged out this way,” she said.

“It’s so good to have a program that actually has a meaning behind it.

“We get so many programs that are just for fun, but we do need more based around mental health.”

Hopes for an Indigenous tennis hub

The program has the backing of Ian Goolagong, the only Aboriginal man to ever play at Wimbledon and brother of former world number one Evonne Goolagong-Cawley.

A man wearing a baseball cap holds a tennis racquet to his chest under the lights of a tennis court at night

Ian Goolagong believes a program that encourages social connections and trust can have positive mental benefits.(ABC Western Plains: Catherine James)

“It’s a great idea,” Mr Goolagong said after coaching a group of teens in Nyngan.

“The whole idea with it is to help mental health.

There’s not really a lot of people going out and doing this in different places.”

The 63-year-old has worked as a coach with Tennis Australia and the Evonne Goolagong Foundation and said there were plans to create a hub for Indigenous tennis players in Condobolin.

A woman and man in baseball caps stand in front of a crowd of teenagers on a tennis court

Louise Pleming was joined by Ian Goolagong to help launch the tennis programs in western NSW.(ABC Western Plains: Catherine James)

The town was Rally4Ever’s first stop on its western NSW tour and more than 120 kids showed up to play.

Other towns on the two-week tour included Girilambone, Lake Cargelligo, Dubbo, Brewarrina, and Walgett.

Local coaches in each town are supported by Rally4Ever head office to continue regular tennis sessions.

Mr Goolagong said those coaching sessions were often about much more than tennis.

“Since I started coaching, I’ve been a counsellor because all the kids are talking to me about their problems,” he said.

A woman kneels on the ground holding two young children either side of her as they all smile at the camera

Denise O’Malley travelled from Hermidale with her two children Joseph and Niamh for the launch.(ABC Western Plains: Catherine James)

Casting a wide net

Ms Pleming said getting adults involved is just as important as kids participating.

“We’ve got to get those adults loving the game again, then it will be longer-lasting,” she said.

A three-year-old girl in a straw hat and floral skirt holds a tennis racquet and ball as a woman coaches her

Niamh Ward, three, receives encouragement from Rally4Ever coach Sacha in Nyngan.(ABC Western Plains: Catherine James)

Denise O’Malley travelled 45 kilometres to Nyngan from nearby Hermidale with her two children Joseph, 5, and Niamh, 3, expecting to simply watch her kids play.

Instead she ended up on the court in her thongs serving the ball to other parents.

“I thought it would be just like some pointers on how to hold the racquet and stuff like that,” Ms O’Malley said.

“I was coming in for the kids to have a look, and I’ve had the best fun ever. It’s a great thing in every respect for mental health to socially connecting to community and fun and coordination.”

Women stand spread out on a tennis court with racquets

Denise O’Malley (centre) initially thought the Rally4Ever launch in Nyngan was only for her children.(ABC Western Plains: Catherine James)

Ms Pleming said the enthusiasm shows how a simple rally can have an impact.

“[Mental health] is not an easy kind of topic, but if everyone plays their little part, we create a bigger web and it’s more of a support web, and that’s all we can do.”

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Posted 1h ago1 hours agoThu 2 May 2024 at 11:15pm, updated 1h ago1 hours agoThu 2 May 2024 at 11:41pm