1974: Vic Braden teaches the tennis boom's new players how to win and have fun

by: Steve Tignor | April 16, 2015

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With his scientific but gentle advice, Braden was a beloved instructor. (AP Photo)

This piece was initially published on April 16, 2015, when we marked the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. This was one of the 50 moments that commemorated the occasion. Braden will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame posthumously on Saturday. 

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

Braden was hooked by the smell of tennis. 

One day when he was 11, young Vic walked past the local public courts, on his way to play in a football game. 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 a 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 last October, 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. More important for tennis, though, was how he taught it. 

For most Americans, Braden will forever be recalled as the friendly face of the tennis boom. Through his traveling “tennis college,” his accessible instructional books and articles, his nationally televised teaching program on PBS, and his high-tech Green Valley resort in Utah, Braden made himself into a real life pied piper of tennis. 

He was the expert and the everyman at once, 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.” An early barnstorming pro, Braden nonetheless said his “heart was with the hackers.” While the boom 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.

It was Braden’s predilection for scientific analysis that set him apart. As a young man, he hitchhiked hundreds of miles to get a glimpse of Don Budge and “find out how he hit his backhand.” When he watched sports in high school, Braden would peer 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. After earning a Master’s in psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, he began teaching at Kramer’s club in Southern California in 1963. Eight years later, Braden opened a tennis college of his own. This self-described “donkey” on the old pro tours—his job was to lose to the stars, Braden said—found himself in the right place at the right time.

Through the first half of the decade, tennis participation in the U.S. experienced explosive growth—there were 10 million regular players in 1970; by ’74, there were 30 million. For the first time, public courts were built on a mass scale, and it seemed that no town, big or small, was complete without its own barn-like indoor racquet club. The first commercially available ball machine, the Little Prince, went on the market.

At the pro level, Evert and Jimmy Connors, who planned to marry, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with their Wimbledon champions’ trophies. In Northern California, a new book, The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey, was about to turn into a surprise best-seller. Whatever the zeitgeist was at that moment—Zen philosophy, fitness mania, the cult of the individual, couples therapy—tennis was tapping into it like no other sport.

So it made sense that 1974 would also be, as the Prescott Daily Courier put it last year, the moment when 45-year-old Vic Braden’s “lifetime dream came true” with the construction of an expanded tennis college at Coto de Caza, Calif. “A new learning center,” the Daily Courier detailed, “high-tech classroom, 19 teaching lanes, an observation tower, video viewing rooms, and six custom-designed tennis courts in conjunction with a 5,000-acre development.” The eager hackers who had streamed onto those new public courts were ready to go to school.

At Coto de Caza, Braden fused his knowledge of body and mind. He 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? His 1990s cover story for TENNIS magazine 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.

Tennis inevitably stopped booming, but Braden never stopped teaching it his way, and trying to help the game fulfill what he saw as its vastly untapped potential.

“We should have 80 million tennis players,” he said in 1989.

Braden was a gentle, jolly, caring man, but life wasn’t always as breezy as he made it seem—he lost his daughter, Kelly, to complications of lupus. Yet even into his 80s, he came to the tournament in Indian Wells 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 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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