Inspiring with a Smile

by: Steve Tignor | October 09, 2014

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Popular tennis coach Vic Braden, who died Monday at 85, on the cover of the March 1980 issue of Tennis magazine.

Vic Braden wasn’t drawn to tennis by watching the pros play. He wasn’t inspired by the elegance he saw in its strokes. And he didn’t play because his parents had played before him; Braden’s father was a coal miner who didn’t belong to the country club in Monroe, Mich., the blue-collar town that the family called home. 

Braden was first hooked by the smell of tennis. 

One day when he was 11, he walked past the local public courts, on his way to play football. At that moment, someone was opening a can of balls.

“You could hear the fizz,” Braden recalled in a 1989 interview with Time. “I could smell the rubber. It was an amazing kind of olfactory thing. I made up my mind I wanted one of those things.”

The next day Braden returned to the courts. Or at least he lurked in their vicinity, waiting for an errant stroke to send a ball sailing over the fence. When the facility’s tennis director, Laurence Alto, caught Braden trying to make off with one, he told him, perhaps with the hint of a smile, “You’re going to jail—or you’re going to learn this game.”

Braden, who died of a heart attack at age 85 this past weekend, would never stop learning this game. Even as his health declined in recent years, he was still trying to plumb the depths of the sport he loved.

“I can’t even tell you the number of projects he was working on,” his wife, Melody, told the Orange County Register in California, after his death. “That was him, though. He even wanted to start a new research project and I sat him down and asked him, ‘Vic, don’t you think you’ve researched every possible thing in tennis?’ He said no.”


(Photo from arielnet.com)

For anyone over, I would guess, age 35, Braden will forever be a figure from tennis’ 1970s and 80s heyday in the United States. Through his traveling “tennis college,” his instructional books and articles, his nationally televised teaching program on PBS, and his high-tech Green Valley resort in Utah, Braden preached the gospel of the game with a smile. 

He was the expert and the everyman rolled into one, a psychologist and scientist of tennis who called himself a “little fat coach,” and insisted that the only way to get people to stick with this difficult game was to teach them to “learn and laugh.” A standout player at Kalamazoo College and an early barnstorming pro, Braden said his “heart was with the hackers.” While the tennis boom of the 70s was led by glamorous young stars like Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert, it was given texture and reach by its homespun enthusiasts, the relentless chatterers, teachers, and promoters like Bud Collins, Nick Bollettieri, and Braden, who never stopped proselytizing for the game.

“One Vic Braden is worth a lot of champions in helping the sport,” his friend and business partner Jack Kramer said. “The McEnroes, Borgs, Connors, they’ve been great. But I don’t think any one of them has created the interest in the sport that Vic has.”

Braden was good enough to play on a tour with Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez in the 50s—he was, as he put it, one of the “donkeys” whose nightly job was to take a beating at the hands of one of the tour's name players. But it was Braden’s predilection for scientific analysis that set him apart. As a kid, he hitchhiked hundreds of miles to see Don Budge, and “find out how he hit his backhand.” When he watched sports in high school, he looked through holes that he had punched into 3 x 5 cards. “I was isolating segments of their bodies,” he said, “the hips, the thighs, to see how they moved during play.”

Eventually, Braden would move onto brains as well—he left no part of the game unanalyzed or uncoached. He earned a master’s in psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and in 1963 began work as the manager and head pro at Kramer’s new club in Palos Verdes, a facility that would eventually nurture the young careers of Tracy Austin and Pete Sampras. 

In ’74, Braden opened his own tennis college in Coto de Caza, Calif. There he fused his knowledge of body and mind. Braden applied the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality test, to tennis, and put his students into psychological categories based on how they learned the game. Were you an N.T.—an Intuitive Thinker—or an ISTP—a Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiver? Braden could size you up by the way you walked. The science behind the approach has been questioned, but there was no doubt about its appeal. Braden’s 1990s cover story for Tennis about personality types was one of the most talked-about in the magazine's history. Yet his method was just as useful and popular with kids; Teaching Children Tennis the Vic Braden Way is a classic instructional guide that inspired generations of players.

When it comes to U.S. tennis today, Braden’s death, or at least its timing, can be seen as instructional as well. Last month, the USTA parted ways with its head of player development, Patrick McEnroe. Asked what the country most needs when it comes to tennis, McEnroe said, “coaching education”—we don’t teach the teachers as rigorously as other nations do. Braden recognized that, and tried to do something about it, for decades. He organized clinics for coaches and talked, as Tim Mayotte does today, of the need for a coaching university in the States.

“We should have 80 million tennis players,” Braden said in 1989. “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 people, and kick people. There aren’t 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 a gentle, jolly, caring man, but life wasn’t always as breezy as he made it seem—12 years ago he lost his daughter, Kelly, to complications of lupus. I met Braden for the first time in Indian Wells, four or five years ago. Even into his 80s, he came to the tournament each year armed with his trusty video camera. At the end of a press conference, his familiar voice would boom out from the back of the interview room—the voice that always reminded me of the jokey way he said “bockhand” instead of “backhand”—with a question for one of today's top players. Vic was always trying to learn more from them, to take what they said and translate it for the rest of us.

Seventy-five years after picking up the tennis scent, he still had his nose in the game.

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