It was banter that brought them together. And tennis.
A chance meeting, if it had been a different day or a different hour or minutes to spare either way she might have already gone or not been there at all.
Louise Pleming was just finishing her regular stint at Canice’s Kitchen near Sydney’s Kings Cross, a community centre that supports the homeless when an intimidatingly large man recognised her from the television. He asked, “Why aren’t you in Paris?”
It was a “sliding doors” moment.
By the end of the conversation she had, to her surprise, agreed to meet him to hit some balls at 7:00am the next day.
It wasn’t too early for him — he was sleeping under the grandstand near the Rushcutters Bay tennis courts. He was already there, good to go. It was raining that morning, but he didn’t have a mobile phone for her to cancel.
“Here’s this guy standing on the court, pouring rain, racquet, tennis balls and he’s ready to play,” Louise remembers.
Brian Turton, she discovered in short order, “was very good, had an unbelievable slice backhand, he really had a great technique,” Louise says. “I was absolutely surprised.”
And so began an unlikely friendship between a former pro tennis player, a woman who travelled the world as an expert commentator wining and dining with tennis royalty, and a man living rough on the Sydney streets.
Louise got very involved with Brian, very fast.
She thought that playing tennis could give him back what he had lost, could give him purpose. What she would give him, Brian says, is “hope”. But it would not be without drama and concern.
“He’s such a big character,” Louise’s partner Charlotte Evans says.
“Bigger than life, rambunctious, loud, a big puffed-up guy.”
By his own admission, Brian says: “I am the worst person to be around when I am angry because I am not angry at other people, I am angry at myself.”
When the reality of what Louise was doing set in, her brother Damien Pleming says he became “quite concerned”.
“Here’s Louise, five-foot-something hanging out with a six-foot-something guy who is living on the streets.”
He also knew that his sister “is massively fearless” and sees the best in everybody.
“What I saw in Brian that other people didn’t was that he’s charming, funny and has a really soft nature underneath,” Louise says.
Good friend and tennis legend Martina Navratilova says Louise has a “massive heart and soul”, so it was no surprise she connected with Brian.
“The connection for Louise and Brian was tennis and you never know where that connection will take you,” she tells Australian Story.
‘I quickly learnt about homelessness’
While Louise has been a coach to some of the brightest tennis talent around, Brian soon became her greatest challenge. She became his coach.
“Louise was smacking these balls down the court at Brian, him smacking them back at her,” Damien says. “They invented a game where he played the greats: Sampras, Nadal or McEnroe. And when he did, he was Brian the tennis player, not Brian the homeless guy.”
Brian would always arrive early for their sessions. In-between there would be erratic phone calls, early in the morning and late at night. Although Louise was extremely busy coaching for Tennis Australia and commentating, she was always prepared to take Brian’s calls.
Brian admits that he’d “annoy the Christ out of her” until she came and had a hit with him. “I’d ring her daily, I’d text her.”
From having no-one in his life who could help him, Brian had found the one person he could trust.
“He gave me all of his bank cards,” Louise says. “He said, ‘Can you look after these?’ He gave me all sorts of paperwork.”
And he opened her eyes to what it means to be homeless.
“I was definitely that person who would walk past the train station and see homeless people and I guess they were somewhat invisible to me,” Louise admits.
“I learnt very quickly what homelessness is about.”
On the professional circuit at age 15
Louise discovered the gift of giving and social service from her devoutly Catholic parents, who owned a corner store in Wagga.
The second youngest of seven children, her father would drive a van to deliver bread.
“At the end of the day, we would drive around and give all the leftover bread to families that were struggling.”
She was six when she first went to a tennis camp. When she saw Evonne Goolagong on the black and white television winning Wimbledon that was it.
“I thought, OK, this is what I really want to do.”
Louise was only 15 when she went to Europe, on her own, to join the circuit.
“You were always running into trouble. I had all my money stolen on a train, I fell asleep and when I woke up everything was gone. People trying to break into your hotel room, men following you. I had to get pretty wired up pretty quickly, get pretty street smart and learn how to protect myself,” she says.
Now she realises, “some of the things I learned on tour, my survival techniques, help me in working with Brian.”
Her dream was to reach the pinnacle — centre court at Wimbledon.
But without the support — the Australian Institute of Sport, the travelling coaches, the money and financial assistance — it was tough.
“I think it made a big difference to whether you were going to be any good as a singles player or a doubles player. I was somehow much better at doubles,” she says.
She would get so close to playing on the biggest stage, then bad luck would happen.
A partner broke his ankle just as they were about to play Steffi Graff and John McEnroe on centre court at Wimbledon was her “biggest disappointment”.
“I realised I wasn’t going to be number one in the world, but I knew I could make a living from it. And I absolutely loved playing,” she says.
After retiring in 2001, she stamped her reputation as a skilled coach steering the Australian Junior Federation Cup team to victory and coaching some of Australia’s elite players, including Jelena Dokic during her comeback.
“Maybe I didn’t achieve greatness in tennis, but I felt there was something else that tennis was going to bring me,” she says.
Tennis touring: Brian’s ‘backpacking’ adventure
Brian grew up near Gosford, “playing every sport he could see”.
He started playing tennis at the age of 9 and was 13 when he began being coached by Greg Healey.
“He was very, very well-liked,” Greg says.
Brian left school at 16 and got a job as an apprentice carpenter and in his early 20s took off for Europe to play the European Money Tour, “backpacking with half a dozen tennis rackets under my arm”.
And he was good. Brian started to win tournaments and his confidence grew.
But when he came back in 1984, he alarmed his parents. He was full of grandiosity, saying he was going to play Wimbledon and beat McEnroe.
“My parents thought I was on drugs. Mum said go to the doctor. So I went to the doctor and the police were waiting for me and they locked me up,” Brian says.
He was put in a psychiatric hospital for assessment. It would be the end of the 24-year-old’s competitive tennis career.
“The stigma of mental illness then was bloody terrible,” Brian says. “You start doubting yourself, you get suicidal. I was like a f****** leper. I wouldn’t answer the phone or go out the door.”
He was certainly burning bridges because of the illness.
“The tennis world is a very close-knit family. They didn’t want to know,” Greg says.
This was Brian’s first breakdown but not his last. There would be periods of calm, but he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, occasionally in jail.
Brian admits he has no fondness for the police. There were five years in London coaching tennis. An itinerant, volatile, unstable life.
Brian finds ‘calm’ on the court
For years, Brian would hit tennis balls against a wall on his own. He had been “waiting 35 years” for someone like Louise.
“When I am on the court with a racket in my hand, I am happy as Larry. I feel like Superman,” Brian says.
A few weeks after they met in 2018, Louise had to travel to Paris for the French Open. Brian would spend nights in the casino watching the tennis on television, “I’d make sure I’m watching in case her head bobbed up on the telly.” He would phone “just to hear her voice.”
But when she got back “he wasn’t as light and happy” on the court.
“One day he came, and he was in a very, very down and in a strange mood,” Louise remembers.
Soon after that, she picked up the phone at 6:00am and it was Brian calling from Caritas, St Vincent’s hospital psychiatric ward. There had been an altercation at a homeless shelter, and he had been taken away on a gurney.
“He was heavily medicated, but when he came out after a couple of weeks, we sat down together and it was amazing,” Louise says.
“He said, ‘Thank you for being in my life’. We shared some tears. We hugged.” Brian had a sense of “clarity and peace”.
It was a turning point. Something to build on.
Louise helped Brian enter a tennis tournament in Goulburn. It would be his first in 22 years. He came in shoes that were far too big and twisted his ankle early on.
“Nothing was right,” Brian says now.
He was losing, getting more and more upset, swearing on court. Finally, after a warning, the referee finished the match. Only Louise could see this as a positive result – that he had turned up at all and given it a go.
By the next day when he called, he had seen the funny side of it and was ready to try again, but with adjusted, more realistic expectations.
Through the difficult times, Louise has “never once” thought about walking away from Brian. “I always thought we could achieve something.”
And over the three years of their friendship there has been significant change. Brian has become calmer and more confident.
Louise knows that if you look after your physical health “your mental health will follow”. After seeing the change in Brian, she began to think she could do this for other people.
“I could help people in similar situations to Brian’s. I wanted to put on tennis coaching down at Woolloomooloo and just really start to engage the whole community,” Louise says.
And so began the foundation RALLY4EVER.
“We don’t judge. We’ve got young people that have had real breakdowns, older people that are just feeling very isolated,” Louise says.
“They are forming friendships and now go out and play together. That’s what it’s all about.”
Brian adds: “Anyone that wants to come down here I think would benefit from the exercise and the fact that it doesn’t cost them anything. They come and get a racquet and plenty of balls, they’ll put up with me for an hour.”
At a recent fundraising event for the launch of the program, Brian was the guest of honour, the inspiration. It was a surreal moment for him. “I said to everyone, ‘She’s got the contacts and I’ve got the bad mouth. This could work’.”
With Louise’s encouragement, Brian recently passed the test for his coaching certificate and now they coach alongside each other.
“Helping the homeless and the depressed and people who are generally unemployed, just stopping them going down the wrong track, I suppose,” says Brian, who is keen to give back.
Life is exciting. With more and more people coming along Louise has been rolling out the RALLY4EVER program across NSW and other states.
Last month, Louise and Brian played their first mixed doubles seniors tournament and won.
And recently, Brian moved into a room of his own at a Woolloomooloo backpackers’ hostel.
As much as Brian’s life has changed, so has Louise’s.
”Brian has definitely had an incredible impact on Louise. She is now dedicating her entire life to giving back to the community,” partner Charlotte says.
Brian says Louise has turned him around and made him a better person.
“But still, I’m not going to walk on water and be Jesus Christ. I’m Brian Turton.”
Watch Australian Story’s Bouncing Back, 8:00pm (AEST), on ABCTV, iview or Youtube.