For our sixth annual Heroes Issue, we’ve selected passages from the last 50 years of Tennis Magazine and TENNIS.com—starting in 1969 and ending in 2018—to highlight 50 worthy heroes. Each passage acknowledges the person as they were then; each subsequent story catches up with the person, or highlights their impact, as they are now. It is best summed up with a quote from the great Arthur Ashe, that was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of this magazine in 2015: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
Do you think you have what it takes to be club champion? You do if you know yourself, accept yourself, try your best and go all out. If you do all those things and still lose, you’re a champ, nonetheless, because you put yourself on the line and went for it. - Vic Braden / August 1984
It’s fitting that Vic Braden, the man who taught so many Americans how to play and enjoy tennis during the great years of the sport’s boom, emerged from the haze of the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee. He was a pioneer of the Open era, and an apt symbol of the new, democratic spirit that powered tennis as it outgrew the confines of exclusive country clubs.
Braden, who died at age 85 in 2014 in his adopted home in Orange County, CA, was both peripatetic and indefatigable. He was stocky and stood just 5'6", but was good enough a player to captain the Division III Kalamazoo College tennis team—a squad that won 74 consecutive conference
championships from 1936 though 2012. He turned pro during the amateur era and played on the barnstorming tour created by Jack Kramer, a three-time Grand Slam singles champion and architect of the pro tour as we know it.
While Braden didn’t become a hero on tour, his outgoing personality, combined with his zest for scientific research, vaulted him to fame and acclaim as a tennis teacher who prefigured the trend toward developmental academies. In 1980, he founded the first of his three Vic Braden Tennis College facilities. As head of the famed Jack Kramer Club in Los Angeles, Braden taught a young Tracy Austin.
A licensed psychologist, Braden was jovial and always interested in technology and techniques—often using odd props in his lessons—that made learning to play the game fun. He authored five books with collaborator Bill Bruns, and was one of the first teaching pros to use video to analyze strokes.
“One Vic Braden is worth a lot of champions in helping the sport,” Kramer told the Los Angeles Times. “The McEnroes, Borgs, Connors, they’ve been great. But I don’t think any one of them has created the interest in the sport Vic has.”
Decades after their heydays, McEnroe, Borg and Connors are still spoken of in reverential tones at tennis clubs. But it’s likely many of those same club players are playing at all because of a different hero.