Building Hope

Tennis is all about problem solving and Donna Fales has spent the better part of four decades searching out solutions on and off the court.

By Richard Pagliaro - Tennis Week

Fales: One of the great things about tennis is no matter how long you've played, I think you're always learning..

Tennis is all about problem solving and Donna Fales has spent the better part of four decades searching out solutions on and off the court.

A proclivity for sound point construction and picking up patterns of play makes Fales, the playing captain for the United States' Kitty Godfree Cup Team, one of the most formidable 65-and-over players in the nation.

It is her commitment to building hope off court for fellow Florida seniors that makes the former head Hurricane a life-changing presence in south Florida.

Fales will represent the United States at the 29th ITF Super-Seniors World Team Championships on grass and artificial grass in Perth, Australia, November 2-7. She captains an American squad that features Suella Steel (La Jolla, CA), Lee Delfausse (Waitsfield, VT), and Cathie Anderson (Del Mar, CA).

"One of the great things about tennis is no matter how long you've played, I think you're always learning," said Fales, who formerly coached the University of Miami Hurricanes. "And I think when you are coaching, you are trying to pick out patterns to help your players."

As playing captain, Fales is proficient at both calling the shots and hitting them.

The 69-year-old Floridian swept both the 2005 Grass Court Singles and Doubles National Championships and was one half of the team that won the 2008 Grass Court Doubles Nationals. Fales has seen tennis evolve from the wood racquet era — when she served as playing captain of the 1963-64 US Wightman Cup Team and three years later became playing captain of the US Fed Cup Team in 1967 that starred Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals — to the modern era where grass has been supplanted by hard courts as the primary surface of choice for many pro tournaments and racquet and string technology have changed both grips and tactics.

"My own style of play has evolved a little bit; you do hit with a shade more topspin now, but by comparison I still I have a very classic game and hit a very classic stroke," Fales says. "It's interesting when Laver played I was playing at the same time and in '62 he hit a tremendous amount of topspin. But in those days because of the grass surfaces and the racquets were so tiny it would have been difficult to have those western grips. Western grips have evolved because the surfaces have changed so much the ball is bouncing up a lot more and players don't have to dig it off the court as much. But when you look at Juan Martin del Potro and some of the other young players now their grips are not as extreme as you saw 15 years ago when Bruguera played Berasategui in the French Open final."

Her ability to bring people from extreme circumstances together transcends the boundaries of the court and has helped her make a positive impact in her community.

In her role as the executive director of Rebuilding Together: Miami-Dade, a national non-profit organization that refurbishes homes for elderly and disabled homeowners at no cost, Fales heads a group that helps rebuild both homes and hopes for some seniors struggling to sustain both while coping with the challenges of a crippling recession.

Donna Fales"We take an existing home owner whose home has a leaky roof or a home modification in terms of their mobility or ability to get in or out and we refurbish homes for low-income residents, elderly, disabled and veterans at no cost to them," Fales says. "We deal with an aging population. We're trying to keep people in their homes. We're talking low income — our average income is $16,000. These are people who may have to decide between money for food and medicine. They have no money for home repairs."

Rebuilding Together sets out to renovate homes that have fallen into disrepair; in many cases their work can rejuvenate spirits on the verge of despair.

"You would be surprised at the conditions some people in this country are forced to live, especially in the aging community," Fales says. "They can live in quite unusual circumstances. We just did a house last week for a disabled woman who has had a couple of strokes and walks with a cane. She is raising four of her sister's children. The home had broken floor tiles, exposed electrical areas, exposed plumbing and termites. So we had University of Miami volunteers come in and they did about $8,000 in repairs on the home. Ceilings and roofs can be very expensive to repair and we're doing three ceilings now."

It represents a circle-of-life completion to a career devoted to promoting programs that can create powerful and positive change in people's lives. Fales spent 31 years programming and funding youth tennis development in Dade County for inner city youngsters in her role as the founder and coordinator of the Dade County chapter of the National Junior Tennis League using tennis as a vehicle to drive children's educational pursuits.

"It is funny in a way that I worked for 30 years teaching sport as a tool for changing people and you're always hopeful that will in fact turn out to be what you intended to do," Fales says. "You hope that they will apply to life what they learned through sport. But in reality, you might be lucky to see a child 20 years later and you don't see many 50 years later. Now, I'm at the other end of the spectrum they are over 60 you can see what you're doing can have an effect right there. For instance, we recently worked with a woman who had an issue with her knee. She could not get back into her house and the doorway wasn't wide enough to fit a wheelchair through it. So we were able to help her by creating wheelchair access.

"We are a community and we're still trying to do for each other and that's the message I keep getting from people who contribute. Often, when we show up people can be pretty skeptical or afraid of predatory lenders. It takes a while to build a trust and relationship. People don't realize how badly off some people can be in this country. There are people with no plumbing, no working bathroom, people using a hotplate to try to feed their families. And when we are able to connect and our volunteers help fix a home some people are overwhelmed someone would want to do that for them."

And at an age when many players are considering retirement, Fales continues her commitment to restoration.

"It is a great to see people up to age 85 playing tennis at Super-Seniors events; it's inspiring for me," Fales says. "One of the secrets I've learned from playing tennis, and I think Twyla Tharp said it as well, is 'keep moving.' Keep moving, choose the steps instead of the elevator. I started Pilates recently, I try to play tennis about three times a week and I walk with a group of friends three miles each morning. Sometimes, it's not easy, but it's important. Keep active and keep moving."

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