Have you seen Vic lately? I hadn't. Arguably the world's top tennis coach for much of the past half-century, Braden used to be everywhere; books, videos, television. Quick with a quip, a smile, and that funny way of saying "backhand" (buck-hund), Vic Braden was everyone's favorite tennis pro.
As I said in my column a few years ago, "everyone loves Vic. He's one of us, short and stout, (his love of jelly donuts is legendary), it's easy to imagine Braden playing along side of us in our weekly league."
"Braden is not a former Wimbledon champion telling us how to win at the All England Club when our biggest concern is simply straightening out our service toss. He is the coach of the masses who sympathizes with the plight of the recreational player. Vic understands that the vast majority of us are not elite athletes competing for millions of dollars, but rather mere mortals playing the game for fun."
Over the past few years, except for the occasional television appearance, Braden had largely dropped out of sight. Where did he go? Was he o.k.? These were my thoughts as I boarded the Metro-jet to Naples a few weeks ago to spend the weekend with Vic.
Let me take a quick step back to bring you up to date. In November, my club was contacted by Ray Benton, chairman of RSB Enterprises. Benton, an influential name in tennis for many years, most recently as the founder of the Worldwide Senior Tour, is also a close personal
friend of Braden's.
He was calling to see if we would be interested in having Vic appear at our club to conduct one of his tennis colleges. It seems that after a few years out of the spotlight and, as I was to find out, in the lab, Braden was making a comeback to the public.
After selling his very successful Tennis University and research lab in California, Braden has taken his Tennis College on the road, thus, our reason for traveling to Florida. Obviously, we were excited about the possibility of having Vic appear at our club, so we went to get a close up look at the program. For me, it was going to be particularly special because, as a teaching pro, Vic had always been one of my professional idols, and who doesn't want to meet one of their idols?
The weekend began with a welcome cocktail party hosted by Braden, for those attending the college. A little older and a bit grayer (aren't we all), Vic greeted us with a handshake and that captivating smile that used to fill up our television screens. For the next hour he entertained and educated us with tales from the court, the lab and the past fifty years of what has been an extraordinary life. There is a definite autobiography there.
Over the next 72 hours, I had the opportunity to spend time with Braden on the court, in the classroom, and in the bar (he drinks only iced tea) and I can safely say that Vic is back and in fine form.
The years have not slowed him much, but they literally melt away when he is in front of a group of people. From the local class clown to the way too serious accountant from Chicago, Vic immediately charmed us all with his wit, his wisdom and, by the way, a vast knowledge which I would say is un-matched in the world of tennis. Take away the much deserved legendary reputation and Vic Braden is still one hell of a tennis coach.
Also a clinical psychologist, Braden has spent much of the past few years studying the mind-body connection. Thousands of hours of research have produced insights into the athlete that have paved the way for breakthroughs both physically and psychologically.
He shows us why we do what we do, both with our minds and bodies. He also demonstrates that, quite often, what we think we are doing is, in fact, quite different from what we are actually doing. The knowledge he has gained, combined with his unique communication skills, enables Vic to pass along a tremendous amount of information in an enjoyable, and relatively short, period of time.
Humble to a fault, Braden is quick to say that his teaching philosophies are "his" way, not "the" way, and he encourages conversation, challenges and even criticism. "We are all each others teachers," he said to me at the end of one session.
While I learned a great deal of tennis during my weekend with Vic, what struck me the most
was what I learned about the man. There is a tremendous love of people and sense of gratitude to Vic. Constantly referring to himself as a "short, fat coach," Vic clearly has no idea how "big" he is. There is not a hint of superiority toward those of us who clearly are his students.
My enduring memory of Vic Braden occurred on our last evening together. Our group of six had left dinner and were walking toward our parking garage. Just as we were about to enter the garage, a homeless man, with no legs, came by in his wheelchair.
He stopped, allowing us to pass by. We all walked in front of him, into the garage. All of us except Vic. I looked back to see Braden extend his hand forward and say to the man, "after you, sir." The man smiled as he nodded and wheeled himself in front of Vic.
A corny story? I guess. A small gesture? Perhaps, but a deed that says it all about a man who has been away far too long. In these days of too much "attitude," Vic Braden is back to remind us that people, tennis, and life for that matter, are things to be respected, studied, but most of all, enjoyed.
With a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle from deep in his belly, there is a certain Santa quality to Vic--a jolly man with many gifts to offer us all. Welcome back Vic. We missed you!!!!