Pioneers in Tennis: The Wit and Warmth of Vic Braden
By Joel Drucker
Everything from its elite background to the code of individualism can make the tennis world rather exclusionary and lonely. But the minute you met the late Vic Braden, all of that would melt away. Say hello and you became a friend. Say more and you entered a delightful roundtable.
Though he would have heartily denied it, Vic was one of tennis’s true geniuses. Most people would be fortunate to master humor or science. Vic commanded both. As he once said, “Laugh and win, laugh and lose, laugh and learn — and hit the ball 6 feet over the net.”
To millions, Vic had burst on the scene in the 1970s, a clever instructor on television offering such tips as “air the armpit” on the backhand or “show me a dinker and I’ll show you a room full of trophies.”
But long before those heady tennis boom years, Vic was among the many who’d laid the groundwork for tennis’s growth. Coming of age in Michigan, he’d starred at Kalamazoo College — while living in a storeroom. There’d come a stint playing on the barnstorming pro tour, Vic playing the likes of Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, and Pancho Segura.
Even more, Vic was a student of the game. Hitchhiking across Michigan to watch Don Budge play, Vic punched tiny holes in a 3x5 index card so he could closely inspect Budge’s superb backhand. That was just the start of a quest for knowledge that constantly put Vic on the leading edge in such areas as video analysis, scientific studies, brain scans and much more.
All the while Vic was able to do his work with kindness, grace and a constant spirit of inclusion. Kramer was so impressed by Vic’s skills that he put him to work on the pro tour as all-purpose tour organizer. One special task required handling the fiery Pancho Gonzalez. No doubt the patience Vic had honed as an elementary school teacher came in handy.
In the early ‘60s, when Kramer sought to build a new club in Southern California, Vic found the land, helped build the club and became its first tennis director. With Vic at the helm, the Jack Kramer Club became a new tennis mecca, a spawning ground for dozens of superb players, including such pros as a quartet of Austins (Pam, Jeff, Tracy, John), top tenner Eliot Teltscher, Pete Sampras, and Lindsay Davenport.
Vic was the head man at Kramer Club for a decade. His lessons were informative and theatrical, members sitting courtside to learn and to laugh. By the early ‘70s, Vic left the Kramer Club and started the Vic Braden Tennis College. Soon his colleges expanded, Vic branching into skiing, dance, music.
Knowing Vic professionally was always joyful. In the late ‘90s we collaborated on a Tennis magazine cover story on brain typing, a means of understanding how people learned and the implications for everything from, as Vic put it, “stroking to choking.”
In the wake of that piece, we spoke frequently on the phone, Vic always available to offer insights. Each year we’d spend time together in Indian Wells at the BNP Paribas Open. To sit at a table with Vic, his wife Melody and such colleagues of Vic’s as Andy Fitzell was a fantastic form of tennis graduate school, a free flow of ideas flavored as much by Vic’s interest in the thoughts of others than his own beliefs.
Vic’s humor and curiosity were shaped most of all by his strongest asset: empathy. He was well aware of the fragility within each of us. I too saw Vic’s heart first-hand when we each lost loved ones — his daughter, my wife — to the ravages of a nasty disease called lupus.
So, on Oct. 6 at age 85, Vic arrived in Heaven.
God: About time. What a waiting list you have. I want to hit over the ball and have a topspin backhand.
Vic: Well with all due respect, if you came over the ball it would hit your toe. Try it this way.
God: Now that’s a miracle.
Vic: Keep it up and you’ll be famous by Friday.
And the Lord is laughing. But also learning.
Oakland-based Joel Drucker has covered tennis since 1982 for a variety of print and broadcast media, including Tennis Channel, Tennis magazine, USTA Magazine and dozens of general-interest publications.
“Pioneers in Tennis,” an occasional column in Tennis Industry, draws attention to trailblazers in the sport. Have someone to suggest? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
See all articles by Joel Drucker
About the Author
Joel Drucker is one of the world's leading tennis writers. Based in Oakland, CA, his work has appeared in a variety of print and broadcast media, including Tennis, USTA Magazine, ESPN, and Tennis Channel. A technical editor for Patrick McEnroe's book Tennis for Dummies, Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life was published in 2004.
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