Glover’s Lane

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Courtesy of the Braden Family

The Tennis Legacy of Vic Braden

An appreciation of the coach who taught low volleys and forehand backswings to everyone from weekend hackers to former U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin

In the days before he died last October, Vic Braden, the legendary tennis coach, often spoke of unfinished business. More books, more research, and further development of his Junior Tennis Ambassadors charity, which teaches children the game so they can teach it to their peers. Braden was already 85, yet he would need years, maybe decades, to sort his collection of tennis films, slides, negatives, photos, and data. He had dim hopes of reviving his defunct tennis college, whose campus sat unused just down the road from his home. Braden had congestive heart failure and had suffered dizzy spells on and off for two years. He lacked energy. He could no longer walk long distances or give a full lesson. His doctors had told him he could live for another year or two, but Braden sensed the end coming sooner. Despite his training in psychology, he said, he couldn’t come to terms with death, that there was no science, no bit of knowledge he might discover to escape the ultimate defeat.

“It’s a bizarre change for me,” he said a week before his death. “I’m doing everything to stay positive. It’s painful.” I told him I wanted to see him. “Come soon,” he said. “I have a lot of things that I’d like to share before I check out.” That was Monday, September 29. I flew to California the following Sunday afternoon and drove to the Braden home in Orange County early Monday morning. I called Braden’s wife, Melody, to tell her I would arrive soon. She began to cry.

“Vic died last night.”

After he sold the Vic Braden Tennis College in the early 1990s, Braden all but disappeared from public life. He put on a few clinics and often attended the pro tournament in Indian Wells, California, where he filmed players for future studies that he never finished. As tennis became big business, with more than $100 million in annual prize money, many of Braden’s accomplishments receded into history. People forgot that Vic Braden did more than anyone to make tennis big in America. He taught countless players, from world no. 1s like Tracy Austin to hopeless hackers to Hollywood stars. He trained armies of teaching pros who went on to inspire others. He applied science to the sport and taught the world what actually happens when a racket meets a ball. He helped Jack Kramer, the American tennis star and entrepreneur, promote the fledgling professional tour, which eventually forced the Grand Slam tournaments to open their draws to both amateurs and pros. Once upon a time, Braden’s name had such cachet that he even started a ski school in Aspen.

In the 1970s, pros like Björn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and John McEnroe brought flair, charisma, and nastiness to a country club sport, much to the delight of young baby boomers. But it was Braden who taught those new tennis lovers to play. It was Braden who made them addicts. He wrote books, starred in instructional videos, and became so popular that he had his own PBS series, called Tennis for the Future. Pudgy, tireless, and always grinning, he built an avid audience of students, readers, and television viewers. By 1978, the peak of the sport’s boom, 35 million Americans played tennis. Braden, their commander-in-chief, ordered them to loosen up and enjoy the game. “Fifty percent of all the people who played today lost,” Braden would say. “That’s a big number.” His motto: “Laugh and win.”

Victor Kenneth Braden Jr. was born in Monroe, Michigan, on August 2, 1929, the third of seven children and first son of Victor and Mildred Braden. His father grew up in Tennessee and spent most of his adult life working for the Consolidated Paper Company, where he became a factory foreman. Braden’s mother, a blur of energy and charm from Kentucky, took care of everything at home.

Ruth Moore, Braden’s oldest sibling, who is now 89, remembers that Vic and his friends would stop at the family home after school to devour sheets of just-baked cinnamon rolls and race off to the ball fields near the house. Sports came easily to Braden. He was quarterback of his high school football team, cocaptain of the basketball team, and a three-time state singles champion in tennis. He dated the most attractive girl in school, Marjorie Bowling, later known as Marge Brinkley, mother of model and actress Christie Brinkley.

The oft-told story is that Braden took up tennis because a recreation department employee caught him stealing tennis balls and said, “You can go to jail or learn to play tennis.” In truth, prison was probably the only thing that could have kept Braden away from the game. Braden never needed ultimatums or encouragement. He was incurably curious. The Braden family had no car, so Braden and his brothers hitchhiked all over Michigan to observe better players and enter tournaments. For two summers, Braden slept in a ball shed at Kalamazoo College, where he taught tennis. He later worked as a janitor and taught sixth grade in Topanga, California, while earning his master’s degree in psychology from Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles). His sixth-grade students loved him so much that nearly 100 of them attended a reunion to honor his life 52 years after he taught his last class.

A few years before the tennis boom hit, Braden left the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Rolling Hills Estates, California, where he had taught a young Tracy Austin, to start the Vic Braden Tennis College in Rancho Bernardo. Braden soon had an offer to move his college to Orange County, where the Penn Central Transportation Company hoped to build an exclusive gated community, now known as Coto de Caza. Penn Central wanted to sell luxury homes, and Braden was the bait. He was plainspoken. Exuberant. Encouraging. Everyone who met Braden became a disciple. He dressed like a kooky uncle: white Lacoste shirt with the collar up and floppy at the corners and blue Adidas warm-up pants. “I’d say, ‘Vic, we have all these clothes,’ and he wouldn’t care if his pants had mustard stains on them,” says Bob Shafer, a promotion manager at Wilson when Braden had a multiyear endorsement deal with the company.

Braden liked to say, “There’s not a lot of tennis in tennis.” Play a match and you’ll hit a few balls per point — maybe none if your opponent double faults — and spend the rest of the time waiting, worrying, and raging against yourself. The actual tennis lasts half an hour. Take a lesson and the clock ticks as you clear balls, pick them up, and talk. In the 1950s, Braden dreamed up a faster, more productive way to teach tennis: hitting lanes where ball machines would fire away so students could hone their strokes. Braden believed players couldn’t modify technique while playing matches. The desire to win was so strong that the mind would force the body into old habits, rather than trust new swings that were technically better but unfamiliar. To learn, students needed to remove themselves from competition and rewire their minds. He wanted students to hit as many as 900 balls in an hour.

Braden built lanes at Rancho Bernardo and then perfected them at his new facility at Coto de Caza. The 17 pie-slice lanes were arranged in a three-quarter circle, each one walled off from the next by a hanging canvas and overhead netting. In the center, a pit with 17 baseball pitching machines shot tennis balls into each lane at up to 100 mph. Students would aim for colored targets that told them where their hits would land on a regular court. Once struck, the balls would roll into a pit, where conveyor belts and chains would feed the ammunition back to the machines. Braden obtained patents on the lanes and the ball-machine feeding apparatus.

On other courts, Braden painted lines and footprints to demonstrate angles for passing shots and proper footwork. Students were videotaped and examined, sometimes to their disbelief: After looking in horror at his technique, one player shouted, “That’s not me!” and fled the room. In the middle of the college stood a tall watchtower, originally built for overhead filming, but used mostly for observing. For tennis students, it was paradise — secluded and serene with comfortable condo accommodations and a restaurant with a five-star chef. There was often a waiting list to get in.

As Braden’s tennis college hummed along, his backers from Penn Central agreed to finance a research lab. Braden found the perfect partner: Gideon Ariel, a former Israeli Olympian in discus and shot put who had a PhD in exercise and computer science. They studied athletes with motion-capture technology and installed wires and sensors beneath an outdoor tennis court and running track to collect performance data — the sort of technology that coaches and trainers would still salivate over today. Force plates measured how much pressure athletes exerted on the ground when they ran. “Every ball that hit the court, there was a signal that used to go to a computer that would tell us where it was hit,” Ariel says. “You could determine topspin, underspin, everything.” The world’s top tennis tournaments now use a series of cameras, developed by Hawk-Eye, to capture this data. Hawk-Eye got its start in tennis in 2006, about 30 years after Braden’s lab was built.

Braden and Ariel tested football quarterbacks, fencers, archers, boxers, polo riders, sprinters, shot putters, tennis umpires, and volleyball players, and helped them understand and refine their techniques. They even helped the United States win an Olympic medal. Before winning a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics, the U.S. women’s volleyball team trained in Coto de Caza against ball machines synchronized to video recordings of the then-dominant Chinese team, to better understand the Chinese tactics. “We had a projector and they would play against the silhouette,” Ariel says. “Except we made it go 10 percent faster.”

Shortly after Braden’s death, his stepdaughter, Kris Paul, showed me around his office and library, which take up the family home’s first floor and a single-car garage. There’s a separate two-car garage packed with boxes, old tennis rackets, and furniture — there isn’t room for a car in any of them.

Braden’s eclectic collection of books, film, slides, and photos is haphazardly catalogued. A list of titles on loose paper and in binders includes “Tracy [Austin] playing her mom, 1969-71,” “unidentified man playing tennis,” “Don Sutton pitching,” and “1967 Davis Cup v. Ecuador.” (Braden has footage of Ecuador’s captain jumping the net to celebrate his player’s victory over Arthur Ashe. The captain tripped, broke his leg, and had to be stuffed into an ambulance with his head sticking out the back until a seat was removed.) There’s “Pancho Gonzales v. Ken Rosewall,” “Steve Grogan, Boston Patriots,” “bicycle myths,” and “Coto de Caza chili cook off.”

Each title has a number that corresponds to a film reel (35mm, 16mm, or 8mm, all stored in tins), a Betamax tape, a VHS tape, or a mini cassette. The reels and tapes are not stacked or shelved in order, and their condition is unknown. Though Braden kept an air conditioner running in the garage, at times it failed and the dry heat took hold; some of his oldest films may have melted or been damaged. It’s unclear what will become of the random bits of tennis history that Braden left behind. Tennis Channel hopes to take a look at the collection. Kris might ship the entire library to her ceramics studio in Portland, Oregon, to examine, archive, and curate it together with her mother. “I wish I knew what his intentions were,” she says.

Braden’s published instructional videos, some available on DVD, remain surprisingly relevant. Ordinary players dominate the lessons, while Ashe, Roscoe Tanner, and a motion-capture animation of Andre Agassi make cameos. Braden tenderly identifies weaknesses and pays compliments when his students improve. He brings home his points with slow-motion footage, graphics, and references to experiments. At 5-foot-6, with the grin and doughy physique of a beaver (he called himself “a little fat coach” and “Fat Albert”), Braden helped students believe that better tennis, if not great tennis, was attainable. “If you buy an ice cream cone and make it hit your mouth, you can learn to play tennis,” he would say. He spoke flat, Midwestern English, except that “a” often became “ah” when he said “backhahnd,” forehahnd,” “chahmpion,” and “advahntage.” It wasn’t an affectation, as many believed. “He said it was because there were so many Aussies on the pro tour when he was helping Jack Kramer,” says Melody, his wife. “He just picked it up.”

Today’s pros don’t hit the way Braden taught. They are bigger, faster, and quicker; they have less time between shots than any previous generation of players. They play with more forgiving rackets that have larger sweet spots and strings that generate more spin. They have shortened their backswings to compensate for the game’s speed. And they all hit from open stances with extreme trunk rotation, paying no mind to Braden’s warning, in his video The Forehand, that excessive twisting could be brutal on the body. Most of today’s recreational players hit this way too.

Yet Braden wasn’t wrong to advise caution. Tennis lovers want to play like their idols, but they usually fail to see that the pro game moves further away from them with each generation of stars. “I’ve had guys say, ‘I want to hit a topspin backhand like [Australian Open champion] Stanislas Wawrinka,’” says Rick Macci, the Florida-based technique guru who has taught Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick, and many others. “I say, ‘Listen, you’re 57 years old! You should chip every backhand crosscourt, make the other guy hit up on the ball, and whack your forehand.’ Those are the things that Vic stressed all the time: topspin, swinging low to high, that tennis is a lifting game. That’s more advantageous to the club player.”

Many of Braden’s tennis maxims — the ones rooted in his best scientific work — will likely be around as long as the sport itself. A server does not “scratch the back” before going up after the ball. (The racket is far from touching the back.) Not even Roger Federer, who keeps his head still longer than any other player when he swings, can see the ball hit the strings, because the human eye can’t register an event that happens so quickly. No one rolls the racket over the ball to create topspin on a forehand, as Pancho Gonzales said he did. (On contact, the racket face is square, or nearly so, and the ball leaves the strings in an instant.) The best servers do not hit down on the ball, but up and out to generate topspin.

Braden often reminded students that tennis is a game of consistency, not flashy shots. In The Forehand, he distills tennis to its essence: You must learn how to hit the ball straight over and over again. “That’s what you’re trying to learn how to do — hit a straight ball,” he says. “That’s all tennis is. Run the person from one corner to the other corner, and just keep them going until they vomit.”

Craig Tiley, the CEO of Tennis Australia and a former Braden employee, says he still refers to Braden’s 1977 book, Tennis for the Future. “He was 20 years ahead of his time,” Tiley says. In 1992, Tiley became interim tennis coach at the University of Illinois. The team went 4-23 in his first season on the job. By 2003, Tiley had lifted the Illini to 32-0 and the national title. Illinois players also captured individual NCAA titles in singles and doubles. “The first person I brought in to run a workshop was Vic Braden,” Tiley says. “We did things the Vic Braden way: Get the technical aspects right, work your ass off, and do something good every single day.” After Braden’s death, Tiley wrote a letter to former pro Todd Martin, now the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, urging that Braden be inducted for his life’s work. A spokeswoman for the Hall of Fame said Braden had been nominated by several people and could be chosen as a candidate for the class of 2016. The hall has 240 members; just three of them are career coaches, including Nick Bollettieri, who was inducted last year.

Jack Kramer, the American tennis star of the 1940s and 1950s, attacked opponents like no player before him. He served darts, crushed forehands, and charged the net at every opportunity. Braden loved the way Kramer played. In 1953, they met in Los Angeles and discussed bringing Kramer’s professional tour to Ohio, where Braden was coaching the men’s and women’s tennis teams at the University of Toledo (and also serving as an assistant basketball coach). Years later, they cofounded the Jack Kramer Tennis Club, with Braden as the head teaching pro. But before Braden became known as a teacher, he helped shape the future of tennis by promoting the pro game.

In those days, tennis players were of two classes: amateurs who played at major events like the French Championships and Wimbledon and who survived on per-diem cash from tournaments, and professionals who played for money. Kramer saw amateurism as a sham and wanted to destroy it by convincing the best players to turn pro. Sometimes, Braden would play: He liked to describe himself as a “donkey,” a player who got kicked around by the stars everyone paid to see. But his real work was as an “advance man.” Braden would travel to a town ahead of the tour and talk up the players’ arrival on radio and television and in newspapers. Braden, a born salesman, convinced sports fans to appreciate tennis and the pros who played it. He also cleaned up after them. On a list of ideas for TV segments that Braden left in his office, he wrote that he spent his first three weeks on Kramer’s tour trailing Pancho Gonzales — a prima donna, ladies’ man, and equal-opportunity offender of men, women, and children — and “apologizing to people [Gonzales] irritated.”

The tour took its act from Madison Square Garden to small ice rinks and high school gymnasiums all over the United States. A truck would roll into town with a net and two pieces of canvas weighing about 1,000 pounds each. Once stretched, the canvas gave the pros a consistent playing surface, though the floor beneath created nightly differences and challenges. “Ice was actually the best, because if they got the temperature right, [the canvas] would adhere to the floor,” says Tony Trabert, the amateur no. 1 who turned pro in the ’50s and later became one of the most recognizable voices in tennis broadcasting. One problem: A wide serve would sometimes send players off the canvas, onto the ice, and sliding into the stands.

“Vic would do anything to get the word out that we were going to be in town,” Trabert says. “We were on a percentage every night. The more spectators there were, the more money we made. We had a guarantee against the percentage. Sometimes we played in front of 300 people, sometimes 5,000 people.” In 1956, Trabert played 101 matches against Gonzales. He lost 74 times. He never earned more than $125,000 in a season, he says.

During Braden’s years at the Kramer Club, the pro shop was run by a woman named Jeanne Austin. She brought her children there every day; when her youngest child, Tracy, was born, Braden was at the hospital to congratulate her. Braden taught Tracy between the ages of 2 and 7. Austin, who won the U.S. Open in 1979, when she was 16, and who often drove the normally unflappable Chris Evert mad with her consistency, later worked with the coach Robert Lansdorp, famous for his technical knowledge and fiery temper. “Robert was great for me because I was hooked on tennis, but I always say that if I had Robert first rather than Vic, I don’t know that I would have kept playing,” Austin says. “Vic made tennis fun.”

Braden with a young Tracy Austin

Courtesy of the Braden Family Braden with a young Tracy Austin

Braden was as bad at business as he was good at coaching. He rarely had equity in his ventures, he didn’t sign contracts, and he didn’t foresee the decline of tennis as a hobby. The tennis boom was part fad, and recreational participation in the sport dipped. Largely thanks to Braden and tennis, Coto de Caza had a collection of lavish homes. But by the late 1980s, there was no need to attract future buyers, and Coto de Caza’s developers declined to renew Braden’s contract. Braden bought the academy and ran it himself in the 1990s before selling it and moving briefly to the California desert. A few years later, what remained of the Vic Braden Tennis College closed for good.

It’s now in tatters. The pipes that framed the hitting lanes have rusted, the ball machine pit is a heap of rotting boards and bent metal, the wooden walkway to the watchtower is partially collapsed, and all the doors — to the video rooms, classrooms, and research center — are locked. A few old ball machines are stuffed into corners between courts, one tipped over on its side. America’s erstwhile tennis mecca looks like it was buried one afternoon and unearthed after decades of neglect. The future of the land is in limbo as real estate developers and community members fight over its zoning status. Braden, whose home is a two-minute drive from the college, hoped until the end that the school would one day be resurrected.

Late in his career, Braden became fascinated with the “brain typing” of Jon Niednagel, who has consulted with pro sports teams to identify the athletes best wired for success based on his theory that every person has one of 16 distinct brain types. When ESPN’s Outside the Lines filmed a segment on the subject in 2002, Braden was enlisted as a panelist to defend Niednagel’s controversial work, which isn’t backed by rigorous studies and is generally dismissed as pseudoscience. Brain typing seemed an odd fit for Braden, who cherished empirical evidence, but Braden was never afraid to trust his intuition. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about Braden’s uncanny ability to predict double faults and Braden’s inability to understand it. Braden saw Niednagel as a kindred spirit, a man who had alluring theories about the brain and wanted to test them through science that wasn’t yet available to him.

Braden never gave up his belief that the mysteries of human achievement and performance could be solved. When he came upon something he wanted to research, he would spend his own money on the necessary plane tickets, cameras, and computers, with no eye toward profit. Braden’s standard business contract was a handshake, and then he wanted to dive into the work, with little regard for bills, debts, or paperwork. “When he did something, he was all in,” says Kory Braden-Hittelman, the only surviving child from Braden’s first marriage. “Nothing was half-ass. He would take the one thing he was into, and that was it.”

When the tennis boom came along and Braden became a star, he was nearly 50, yet he lived like a man 20 years younger. When he became too old to continue teaching, his daily habits didn’t change. He ate poorly — he often joked about “low-fat jelly doughnuts” — and he developed diabetes. He eventually lost sight in one eye. For as long as he could, Braden ignored the looming complications of his failing health. This past summer, Braden told his brother, Ralph, he thought he could get back on the court and teach if he sat in a wheelchair. “I think Vic thought he was going to live forever,” Ralph says.

The week before he died, Braden started saying what everyone believed to be premature good-byes. He would respond to emails with “it has been a pleasure to know you” notes, and he treated visitors as if he would never see them again. In the early hours of October 6, just after midnight, Melody woke up and saw that Braden had gotten out of bed. When he didn’t return, she went to check on him and found him collapsed on the floor. Later that morning, she dressed him for work one last time, for eternity: white collared shirt, blue warm-up pants. 

Tom Perrotta (@TomPerrotta) is a Wall Street Journal correspondent and editor-at-large for Tennis Magazine. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic and Men’s Journal.

Filed Under: Tennis, Vic Braden, Tennis Academies, Nick Bollettieri, Tracy Austin, U.S. Open, Jack Kramer, Wimbledon