Melbourne, Australia, 21 March 2021 | Vivienne Christie

Enjoyed in dozens of countries and settings throughout the world, few pursuits cross cultural boundaries as successfully as tennis.

But the power of the sport to bring people together was especially evident when past and present Australian professionals, as well as generous coaches and prominent community members, welcomed a group of refugees to Victorian Tennis Academy’s, Fawkner Park Tennis Centre.

Bronte Goodwin, Manager of the Fawkner Park Tennis Centre that operates in Melbourne’s inner south, explained how the special afternoon of tennis came together ahead of the Australian Open in February.

“We were approached by Tanya Lee from the CorriLee foundation who was partnering with Louise Pleming at Rally4Ever and (former Socceroo star) Craig Foster,” Goodwin related.

“Tanya asked whether we would be open to donating courts at Fawkner Park Tennis Centre, South Yarra, for an event for the refugees recently released after eight years in detention.

“We were aware of the situation and were more than happy to donate the courts, coaches and equipment for the event.

“Tennis is a fantastic driver for social connection and mental and physical health, so we felt this was a great introduction to Australia for these men in a safe and fun environment.”

Australian stars John Millman and Matt Reid were equally keen to facilitate the group’s positive experience of the sport, as was past player Paul McNamee.

With a deeply entrenched love for the sport, Tamil refugee Thanus Selvarasa was delighted to meet a long-time favourite player in Millman.

“I love Millman’s playing, I never thought in my life I would meet him,” Thanus told SBS’s The Feed.

“It was very hard to play against him, but he played at our level, very slowly for us.”

For Sri Lankan refugee, Ramsiya Sabanayagam, who was among a group of 25 men released from hotel detention a fortnight earlier, it was a special introduction to the game. “Today was my first time ever in my life playing tennis,” he commented.

Pleming, a former tour player who is now prominent as both a coach and commentator, related the “amazing experience” of helping participants many benefits of time on court.

“They had never played tennis before and had been unable to engage in any exercise or really even get out of their rooms for some time,” she said.

“I could see in their eyes what it meant to them to be on the court and playing tennis. They just loved being on the court and had so much fun and I could see for that brief moment, it took away all their worries. It was amazing to see.”

Australian players and coaches welcomed a group of refugees to Victorian Tennis Academy, Fawkner Park Tennis Centre; photo courtesy Maggie Garcia Pena

Australian players and coaches welcomed a group of refugees to Victorian Tennis Academy, Fawkner Park Tennis Centre; photos courtesy Maggie Garcia Pena

There were strong parallels with Rally4Ever, which Pleming established with the purpose to build human connections through community and physical activity. Pleming is particularly passionate in helping disadvantaged groups thrive.

“Tennis breaks down all barriers, everyone is equal when hitting a tennis ball,” said Pleming, who was especially pleased to see the many individuals enjoying that experience at Fawkner Park.

“It was so humbling to be able to be able to pass on my skills and experience in such a meaningful way and be on court with tennis greats.”

Reflecting on this year’s Harmony Day theme of “Everybody Belongs”, Goodwin also noted how the afternoon countered any misconceptions of tennis as an individual endeavour.

“Tennis truly is a sport for life that anyone can get involved in. With multiple avenues for entry to the sport through coaching, court hire, Cardio Tennis and competitions, it allows any person of any background or ability to get involved,” said Goodwin.

“Despite the perception that it is an individual sport, tennis creates social connection and communities through the club-centre environment that allows people to feel part of something.”

That was certainly true for the group of men who cherished their first experience of the sport – and while geographical constraints have so far prevented a repeat visit, the Victorian Tennis Academy is currently exploring options to offer or help facilitate further programs for the players.

With other initiatives supporting Deaf Tennis, Women’s Week, a scholarship program offered to disadvantaged families and a partnership that supports veterans and their families, inclusiveness is a strong priority.

“In addition to our regular weekly schedule, we are working to break down barriers to play by offering a wide range of programs,” said Goodwin of the Victorian Tennis Academy, which operates at the Fawkner Park Tennis Centre, Powlett Reserve Tennis Centre and Oakleigh Tennis Club.

“Our venues are all welcoming non-member clubs that allow anyone to come and play tennis.”

Those values are reflected many times over in tennis venues throughout the nation. As Australia marks Harmony Day in 2021, the sense that “Everybody Belongs” in the sport has arguably never been stronger.

Australian players and coaches welcomed a group of refugees to Victorian Tennis Academy, Fawkner Park Tennis Centre; photos courtesy Maggie Garcia Pena