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Vic Braden: A True Tennis Giant 1929-2014
By Greg Moran
The tennis world lost a true giant last October when legendary teaching pro Vic Braden passed away from a heart attack at the age of 85. An influential coach, author, scientist and media personality, Braden entertained and educated the tennis-playing public for over 50 years.
Arguably the first "celebrity" coach, Vic was the man who taught us to play tennis during the 70's and 80's when the sport's popularity was at its height. A true tennis evangelist, Braden was the coach of the masses, an old friend, who sympathized with the plight of the recreational player.
Short and stout, (his love of jelly donuts was legendary) it was easy to imagine Vic playing alongside us in our weekly doubles game. He understood that the vast majority of players are not elite athletes competing for millions of dollars, but rather mere mortals playing for fun.
In today's so serious world where we're told that every swing of the racket is a violent event and specialization before puberty is a requirement for success, Vic offered a different approach-----"laugh & win." "People should be laughing their guts out while learning," he frequently said. "Those that learn this way will improve the most and play for a lifetime."
Quick with a quip and that funny way of saying "backhand" (buck-hund) Vic was the pied piper of tennis and "fun" was his # 1 tune. "He wants to turn the world on to tennis," The New York Times Magazine said in 1987. "He has become the patron saint of the weekend hacker. In fact, he has been so successful at intertwining laughter with good stroke production that a cult has formed around him."
In the world of tennis Vic Braden was all-time big-time, and, as news of his death spread, reaction within the tennis community was swift:
"Rest in Peace, Vic Braden.," Chris Evert wrote on her Twitter account. "Innovative, cutting edge kind of guy. Will miss his enthusiasm and knowledge of the game. He'll be greatly missed."
"So sad to hear of the passing of tennis coach Vic Braden, a pioneer, innovator, & true legend in our sport!" Tracy Austin tweeted.
"Tennis has lost a treasure," Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter. "He was always on the cutting edge of science in tennis & is an all-time great in our industry."
Born in Monroe, Michigan in 1929, Vic excelled in baseball, football and basketball before coming upon tennis quite by accident. As he wrote in his last book:
"One day, on my way to the football field, I passed the tennis courts and a gentleman was opening a new can of tennis balls. I heard the strange sound coming out of the can and the new white balls were fascinating. I could smell the rubber. I determined that I would like some tennis balls so I hid behind the solid wooden fence at the end of the courts. When a ball popped over the fence, I would grab it and throw it to my pal what was stationed a good distance away. But the city recreation employee, Mr. Lawrence Alto was too smart and joined my friend to catch the balls I was throwing.
He made an intelligent comment to me, "You can go to jail or learn to play tennis. It was a no-brainer for me so I started to play tennis. I was eleven years old, liked it, and have been with it ever since."
Young Vic became so fascinated with the mechanics of tennis that he hitchhiked to Detroit to watch Don Budge play Bobby Riggs just so he could study Budge's backhand. He went on to become an accomplished junior player, played for Kalamazoo College and, after graduating in 1951, joined Jack Kramer's pro tour for three years.
Well before "Open" tennis, the pros of the Kramer tour lived a quite different existence from the stars of today. As Vic wrote:
In those years, the amateurs considered "pro tennis" dirty words so the pros were forced to play in public arenas. That often meant putting down an artificial canvas court over the ice used for hockey teams. After the matches ended, we'd pick up the court, pack it in the truck and travel all night to have the court ready for the next evening's matches. It wasn't unusual to see an effective slice serve pull a receiver off the court and into the stands while sliding on the ice."
Braden often described that tour as "six stars and six 'donkeys,' whose function was to lose to the stars. I was a donkey."
After retiring from the tour, Vic became the head tennis and assistant basketball coaches at the University of Toledo. He continued his education with ten years of graduate school, eventually earning a master's degree in educational psychology from what is now California State University in Los Angeles.
From 1954-61 Braden stepped into the business side of sports as the Assistant Manager of the Professional Tennis Tour and, in the mid-sixties, he joined the management team of the George MacCall group which featured players such as Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver and Billie Jean King.
Though Vic enjoyed promoting the game and running tournaments, his true passion was teaching. So in 1962 he and Jack Kramer founded the now legendary Jack Kramer Club. Vic served as the head tennis pro and developed the "tennis college" concept.
During the next decade, Vic cultivated and nurtured an amazing tennis culture that started the careers of thousands of players. Tracy Austin (Vic rolled tennis balls in her crib) and former touring pros Elliot Teltscher and Jim Pugh were among those who took their first lessons from Vic. Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport also hit thousands of balls at the Kramer club.
Vic worked seven days a week taking juniors to tournaments, teaching housewives, executives and celebrities. He became so in demand that 30 minute private lessons were booked two years in advance and often drew huge crowds who came just to watch him teach. As big as he became, Vic set aside every Saturday morning to teach children for free.
In 1972, Braden founded the Vic Braden Tennis College which he ultimately took on the road and continued to conduct for the rest of his life. Unlike other camps run by big-name coaches, who seldom appear or casually stroll the courts throwing out generic tips, the "little fat coach" (as Vic called himself) was a huge presence at his tennis colleges. On court feeding balls in his trademark knit polo shirt (collar always turned up), behind the camera shooting video or in the classroom lecturing, Vic was there with you.
Many teaching professionals tolerate the average player ("toads' as Braden termed them) because they want their money. In reality they'd rather be working with those that have "potential." Vic was the opposite. He loved the "toads." As one former camper wrote, "he seemed excited by the idea of dealing with mediocre players because there was so much more he could teach us."
When you signed up for a Vic Braden Tennis College you were guaranteed three things: Vic and all that his tremendous personality and generous heart had to offer, improvement in your tennis and laughter... always laughter.
When aggressively challenged by a student who would question his instruction by saying, "it works for me, why fix what isn't broken?" Vic would put on a big smile and reply, "Well, this might explain why you're not being invited to the big events." The aggressor couldn't help but smile.
When he instructed a middle-aged woman to bend her knees, she challenged, "My knees don't bend that much." Without missing a beat, Vic replied with a clever grin, "That's strange. Didn't I see you sitting in the restaurant last night? How did you get into that position? Did the waiter hit you in the back of the knees?" Point made, the woman, her classmates and Vic all burst out laughing.
Always positive, Vic would praise a student by saying "Keep that up and you'll be famous by Friday" or when another was struggling he'd comfort them by saying "Don't forget, every day 2 million people play tennis and 1 million of them lose."
Over the next quarter century, "the fat little coach" became the Buddha of the "toads." With his insightful commentary and witty dialogue, Vic appeared on the Today show, Good Morning America, Nightline, 20/20 and even Hollywood Squares. He was also featured in both Time and People magazines.
As his celebrity grew, Braden always stayed true to his first love, the recreational player. "If you don't have the masses, you don't have a game," he would say. "You've got to take care of the regular player because they are the ones who attend professional matches, buy the clothing and equipment and watch the game on television."
"Unfortunately, I think that a lot of today's pros have forgotten this. Without the support of the recreational players I guarantee you, the pros are going to be out on the golf course or somewhere trying to teach the game because they're not going to make the big money they're now getting."
Vic wanted everyone in the world to play tennis and he firmly believed that everyone in the world could learn. He frequently said, "If you buy an ice cream cone and make it hit your mouth you can learn to play tennis."
He taught people in wheelchairs to play and even worked with blind children, shouting out a number code to help them find the ball with their rackets. When the kids hit the ball, he was more thrilled than they were.
Frank Deford once wrote in Sports Illustrated that "Braden is very nearly a stand-up comedian, suggesting some kind of bizarre combination of Norman Vincent Peale and Rodney Dangerfield."
Yes, Vic was funny but don't mistake his humor and kind nature for a weak personality or shallow mind. Through the years, against great opposition within the industry, Vic scientifically challenged, and subsequently discredited some of the most accepted teaching methods in the game, much to the chagrin of his colleagues. He also had no tolerance for poor coaching.
"I've watched coaches say, 'Shut up and do it the way I tell you because I'm the coach.' I've watched coaches abuse, hit and even kick people. There are not enough coaches out there saying, 'Hey, it's ok. Here, let me show you how to do it. Just hang in there.' Human caring is very much needed."
Braden was an innovative pioneer who was among the first to use computers, physics, psychology, video and brain-typing in an effort to provide as much information to his students as possible. He tirelessly researched the game and meticulously broke tennis down to its most minute areas.
The tennis court was Vic's laboratory and the body in motion was his to dissect. Early in his career, he would punch pinholes in 3-by-5 inch cards and look at athletes in motion. "I was isolating segments of their bodies, the hips, the thighs, to see how they moved during play."
Vic was one of the first to go high-tech, hooking athletes up to wires and placing high speed cameras and sensors throughout the court with the data being fed into computers. His goal was to figure out how the body actually moved when in motion and apply that to higher performance.
"The ball doesn't know if you are hitting a forehand or backhand, or if you're wearing your lucky shorts. It only knows how the racket meets it. You can't violate the physical laws because Mother Nature will get you every time."
Braden didn't confine himself to just tennis. After he and his wife, Melody, returned from a ski trip, confused by the wide variety of teaching methods he saw, Vic decided that the sport needed some research. After receiving sponsorship dollars from the Aspen Skiing Corporation, Vic went to work interviewing skiers and ski instructors. He ultimately developed a method of teaching the sport that led to his own ski school that was ultimately voted the best in the country by Ski magazine.
Vic went on to make instructional videos for a wide variety of other sports including fencing, badminton and volleyball. He believed that, with the right information and lots of practice anyone can play and improve. Two "Vic-isms" come to mind:
"There are many tennis players that will do anything to improve their game... except practice."
In the 70's and 80's a great debate emerged in the world of tennis as metal rackets were replacing wood as to which was better. Vic told it like it was:
"Metal or wood? Who cares? The real trouble is the toad at the end of the grip."
Vic's methods became so popular that people from other sports approached him, to examine their golf swings, pitching motion or running style. Violinists and classical conductors came to him to have their movements filmed and analyzed. He analyzed athletes ranging from Roger Federer to Muhammad Ali's racehorse. In later years, Vic was a major presence at tournaments around the world. Camera and notebook in hand, he continued to study.
As Vic's moved into the fifth set of his life, his quest for insight never diminished. Despite battling diabetes, skin cancer, the loss of sight in his left eye and congestive heart failure, he continued to research, teach and innovate.
When diagnosed with diabetes, he started developing programs for schoolchildren that would teach them about nutrition and inspire them to eat better.
"I had known for about twenty years that I was a type two diabetic, but that didn't slow me down. I had been warned about wearing a large hat and using sunblock but that warning didn't grab me until the last few years. My diet was primarily what I called "low cal doughnuts and fast foods. So, four skin cancer operations later, I realized that I was too late to reverse things. As for the diabetic syndrome, the money spent on drugs and the time spent taking the drugs has altered my daily routine significantly."
Vic knew his time was limited but, as always, he was quick with a quip:
"I was hoping to play in the 90-and-over division."
"When Vic's great big heart finally gave out, he was in the midst of writing three books and I can't even tell you the number of projects he was working on," said Melody. "That was him, though. He even wanted to start a new research project. I sat him down and asked him 'Vic, don't you think you have researched every possible thing in tennis?' He said no."
Through his eight books, instructional videos, lectures (all over the world) and traveling tennis colleges, Vic Braden taught tennis to millions of people around the globe. He also produced educational television specials for both children and adults on PBS (carried by 238 stations) and ESPN. It was once said that Vic did for tennis what Julia Child had done for cooking.
A lot of people under the age of 50 today don't know Vic Braden. However, if they were to play the six degrees of separation game, I can pretty much guaranteed that the vast majority of tennis players today are connected to Vic in some way. As Barry Buss wrote: "He may not have been coaching elite players of late, but Vic Braden is the grand-coach or great grand-coach to dozens and dozens of world class players today. If you draw a line from the greats of today to their coaches, all lines lead back to him. Vic Braden is the one who taught our teachers."
Yes, dozens of world class players and millions of "toads" have Vic Braden to thank for teaching us tennis. However, Vic's lessons extend far beyond hitting a little ball. Vic wanted people to work hard, not take themselves so seriously and have a great time. If we can do that, he believed, we'll all be winners. Laugh and win!
Note: Vic is still in the lab today as his body was donated to the University of California, Irvine, for research purposes.
"Tennis has done everything for my life except make me 6'3" and thin."
- Vic Braden
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