NJTL 50 for 50:
Sally Milano | April 26, 2019
As the USTA Foundation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the National Junior Tennis & Learning network, USTA.com looks at 50 NJTL leaders and alumni who helped shape this incredible community dedicated to helping youth strive for academic and athletic excellence on the tennis court, in the classroom and in life.
In this installment, we catch up with Donna Fales, a former Top-10 player, Grand Slam champion and U.S. Fed Cup captain, who is one of the early leaders of the NJTL program. Fales was the first president and executive director of the Miami chapter of NJTL, which was founded in 1974, and she served as chairman of the USTA NJTL Committee when NJTL merged with the USTA in 1985.
The Donna Fales File
Name: Donna Fales
NJTL Chapter: NJTL Miami/Greater Miami Tennis Foundation, national NJTL network
Role with NJTL: NJTL Miami/Greater Miami Tennis Foundation, president and executive director; NJTL national, committee chairman and board member
Year became active in NJTL: 1974
Can you talk about your background with NJTL and how you first got involved with the organization?
Donna Fales: I was in New York from 1962-69, and, of course, knew [NJTL founders] Sherry [Sheridan] Snyder, Arthur [Ashe], Charlie [Pasarell], and so I was there when they started the NJTL program.
I moved to Miami in 1969. Sherry came down, was here for some reason, and talked me into getting involved in a Miami chapter. The [Miami] NJTL chapter was officially started in 1974, and then I became president of it in ’75 and served as the president until ’89. Meanwhile, during that period, I was an NJTL board member from ’76-83 on the national level. From 1983-85, I was the CEO and president for NJTL at the national level. This was when it was independent of the USTA and had various sponsors. And then we merged with the USTA around 1985, and I was chairman of the USTA NJTL committee from ’85-88, and then I stayed on as a committee member until 2004.
So meanwhile back in Miami, we formed a community tennis organization, which was a very popular USTA concept at that time called the Greater Miami Tennis Foundation, and I was president of the Greater Miami Tennis Foundation from ’88-90, and then I became a paid ED [executive director] from 1991-2005.
When we became the Greater Miami Tennis Foundation, it was just a name change [from the NJTL of Miami]. We were still running NJTL programs, and I would say since its inception in 1974, and I retired from it in 2005, we probably put about 35,000 kids on the court. We used the same concept that Sherry, Arthur and Charlie had, using the public facilities, particularly the ones that were underused, of which there were quite a few. All the years that the NJTL operated under the Greater Miami Tennis Foundation it was the same NJTL program.
What was the Miami NJTL like when it first started, and how did it evolve over the years?
Donna Fales: It was small. We used less public parks, we had less kids, and then overall it expanded so that we did maybe, the first couple of years, 100 kids. And then soon we became pretty consistent with about 1,000 kids a summer, a six- or eight-week program, depending upon the school schedule. We would have championships. We would give scholarships. There were opportunities to go to Bollettieri [tennis academy]. We just kept expanding the activities. We probably gave $80,000 to $100,000 in scholarships over that period of time. We provided different opportunities. We were recognized as far as community program of the year.
What was particularly interesting to me was that, over that period, kids who played in the program would go off to school and come back and teach at the park where they had learned to play tennis. Even though we didn’t have the name “education” in the National Junior Tennis League, the name at that time, the emphasis was always on education. I still run into people today who were in the program, and so many of them have doctorates, master’s [degrees]. But what was heartening to me was to have people come back to their community and give back the same way that other people had initially given back to them to introduce the game of tennis, and what that did was open up many different opportunities.
Every now and then, kids would get good enough to play on a high school or college team, which would give them another opportunity to go a different direction than they normally would. We were not a champion-building program. We were interested in getting kids off the streets and introducing them to the game of tennis and the disciplines of life that make life successful.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in NJTL over the years, as you have been involved almost since its inception?
Donna Fales: The merger with the USTA was a big change, and then we introduced the essay program, where kids would write essays and were selected to go to New York to attend the US Open and were recognized there. And the opportunities opened up from there.
What do you enjoy most about NJTL?
Donna Fales: I’ve been a player all my life, and I think that since I’ve benefited so much from the game of tennis that it’s quite natural to think of how to give back. I think most players enjoy encouraging youngsters to play and take up the game. They don’t have to be athletes. It’s just fun having kids learn the joy of hitting the ball and the fun of competition.
I never had any trouble asking a player to come do a clinic. We attached ourselves to what is now called the Miami Open. It was the Lipton at the time. We would run different activities during that tournament, and I never had any trouble asking any of the professional players to come do a morning session or hit with the kids or talk with the kids. I think most players like to do that.
Who were some of the players who agreed to do that?
Donna Fales: You name it. Whoever the top players were at the time—the Arthur Ashes, the Charlie Pasarells, the Stan Smiths. Tom Gullikson, Patrick McEnroe, Richard Williams, Bud Collins. Whoever played in the’70s and ‘80s. You name it.
Tell me about what you’re doing these days.
Donna Fales: After I retired from the Greater Miami Tennis Foundation in 2005, I went back to playing a little competitive tennis and had some success. I won a couple world championships. And then I joined another nonprofit called Rebuilding Together Miami-Dade, and that nonprofit would provide critical home repairs for low-income elderly and disabled homeowners. I came in as the executive director, and I worked there for 10 years. Simply, I like to work on behalf of the community, and I like to accomplish. I stepped down from that in 2017, so I’m a couple of years into not having a particular organization, although one of the things I’ve enjoyed once again is volunteering, for the Everglades’ Every Kid in a Park program, which introduces fourth graders to the Everglades National Park. It’s a great program. I’m not running it. I’m just participating in it. I still play competitive tennis, and I’m a 50-year volunteer of the USTA.
Thinking back, what does it mean to you to be a part of NJTL? You’ve played a major role almost from the beginning.
Donna Fales: I think the measure of success is when you start a program, and 50 years later, it’s still going. I played my first tournament when I was 10, and I’m now 78, and it’s been a wonderful journey. I’ve done many, many different things in tennis, and I think that NJTL has always had a special place in my heart because any time you can be responsible for putting 35,000 kids on the court, you’ve done something. And if you change one person’s life, you’ve done something.
Pictured above: Donna Fales (fourth from right) at a reception for past U.S. Fed Cup players held during the Fed Cup World Group first-round tie between the U.S. and The Netherlands in Asheville, N.C., in February 2018. Photo credit: Ashley Marshall/USTA