Laugh and Learn, Love and Live: Vic Braden, 1929-2014

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“The moment of enlightenment is when a person’s dreams of possibilities become images of probabilities.”—Vic Braden

By Bill Simons

The late, great Vic Braden began coaching Tracy Austin when she was two, and went on to advise Muhammad Ali. He pioneered the concept of a tennis college, and cooked up more scientific research than a PhD. He gave more clinics and offered more tips than just about any other mortal. He has turned about as many phases as Vin Scully, lost almost as much weight as John Madden, and was the only pro we knew of who referred to a player’s fast-twitch fibers.

Born in Michigan, based in Coto de Caza, and universally recognized in tennis circles, Braden was one of the game’s great enduring figures.

He so enriched my life, and the lives of countless others. Such heart, such curiosity, such courage. A groundbreaking pioneer who loved sports and loved tennis and, more than anything, loved people. Always so positive, so quick with a quip, he told his pupils he’d “make them famous by Friday.”

The man was a scientist, cerebral and serious, yet also a fun-loving elf with a sparkle to his presence. Once, before addressing a USTA meeting, he asked with a glint in his eye, “Can I have a glass of water, if it’s within your [$150 million] budget?”

The man was a lover of life and all things tennis— little and large.

The man was an expert in brain types.

But there was no type like Vic.

He was a force, a spirit, like no other.

He could be blunt, telling us, “If you can walk to the drinking fountain without falling over, you have the physical ability to play tennis well.” Yet, he also spoke of nirvana, saying, “The moment of enlightenment is when a person’s dreams of possibilities become images of probabilities.”

All the while, Braden delighted in debunking esoteric theories. He insisted, “Basically, the reason you choke is that you don’t have the strokes.” He added, “Everybody says ‘be natural’ . . . [yet] nearly everything I’ve seen about tennis that’s natural is wrong.”

Irreplaceable and irrepressible, he popularized the game in its boom daze. Now, his place should be in the Hall of Fame.

Yes, he will be so missed. Yet we will always embrace the wonder of the man from Michigan.

Back in 1988, during one of our many conversations, Braden was quick to inform me that while Jimmy Connors’ serve only traveled at 72 mph, his grunt was 130 mph. I learned that it takes 200 milliseconds for the brain to get the hand to respond to a command, and that the athlete who requires the quickest hand-eye coordination is a hockey goalie.

Braden always insisted that no one actually sees the ball hit the court. In fact, “When a ball hits, it rolls about two inches before it takes off. So if you think of all the people you’ve cheated, you might want to go back and apologize.”

A kind of Johnny Appleseed for tennis, Braden  reminded us, “Fifty percent of all the people who played around the world today lost. So if you have to win to be happy, millions of you may well have to take gas today.”

Braden was a trained psychologist, but he often came across as a tennis engineer more than as a self-help guru. “If you’re working on attitude and the racket is pointed the wrong way,” he scolded, “all you’re going to be is a happy loser. The ball doesn’t care. The ball doesn’t know you have a funny grip. It doesn’t know anything except how the racket hits the ball for four milliseconds.

Look, [the former French champion] Francoise Durr had the strangest grip. But she could choke a bull with two fingers. You can have your finger in your ear and your legs crossed, (but) all you have to do is get your racket pointed straight on a vertical plane at the point of impact.”

While Braden is most famous for his dictum, “Hit it deep and down the middle and you’ll be famous by Friday,” I was most impressed by a simple bit of advice. “Take care of yourself as a person,” he said, “rather than worrying about becoming a Wimbledon champion. You’re very valuable as you are. Your success doesn’t depend on your ranking.” And remember, you don’t have to be 8 feet tall to hit a pretty decent serve.

When we spoke 26 years ago, Braden said tennis is “such a great sport, which even managed to survive some bad, apathetic leaders.”

As for what he’d added to the sport, he said, “I brought humor into the game and put tennis in perspective. People tell me, ‘Look, I’ve learned to play for fun. Now I don’t get so wrapped up in my losses.’ But I feel my biggest contribution has been to get people to think more intelligently about the game.” And if Braden could give just one tip, “it would be to women on how to serve, because women have been so discriminated against on how to throw a baseball.”

According to Braden, the best serve of all time belonged to Pancho Gonzales. The best forehand was Bjorn Borg’s. The best backhand was Ken Rosewall’s. The best returns: Rosewall and Jimmy Connors. The best volley: Jack Kramer. The toughest mentally was Steffi Graf. As for his biggest regret, it was “that we’ve paid lip-service to getting the kids on the street, but we haven’t done enough to make the game affordable to them.”

Fourteen years later, in 2002, I sat down with Vic once again, and had this exchange:

You were smack in the middle of the boom in the ’70s. Tennis was soaring. Everyone was wearing tennis outfits at Safeway.

It came so fast. We had rooms for 72 people at our tennis college…People were bribing pros to give them extra lessons. Celebrities came in droves. It was important to be No. 1 in the celebrity world. Celebrity tours were everywhere. I was working with Debbie Reynolds and Lana Turner. Hollywood’s thing was, if you;re not playing tennis, you’re nobody, you don’t have that image. The demand for tennis in corporate outings exceeded golf for about six years.

Was the boom just a cycle, or did tennis squander an opportunity?

People found out it’s a difficult sport. Everybody wanted to get in, even pro athletes. They’d say, “It’s so easy. it’s simple—just get that little ball back…[But] it was painful. It requires time. Even [Ivan] Lendl, who tried to become a volleyer in two weeks, couldn’t learn to volley.

People like tennis’ allure. But it’s a tough mother.

What’s interesting are the testimonials when people come back to tennis. “I tried golf, but I want some action. I was a good high school athlete and I was sure I’d be a 5.5 player, but now I realize I’m going to have to settle for being a 3.5. it’s humiliating.”

And the one thing you’re most proud of—

Trying to get the facts out about the sport. It’s a beautiful sport. No one can come up with a sport that’s better. You can get carpal tunnel syndrome turning the key on a golf cart. When you play tennis, you’re active. At a 90-and-over tournament, a 93-year-old was losing to the 91-year-old who’s getting every ball, so the 93-year-old guy yells out, “Oh, to be 91 again.” Can you imagine a sport where you can start at 60 and still have 30 years to work on your game before you even qualify for the event?

You’ve been called the funniest man in tennis, yet you’re into the science of the game and have done extensive research on brain types. Is there a connection between humor, psychology, and biomechanics?

If you can get a person to laugh and have fun, the signal from the brain is more precise. The brain sends down a signal for a perfect forehand stroke. But if we put a little pressure on or get you uptight, we get the signal to change. When people who have more fun playing get into tight situations like they’re more apt to send the proper signal for a good stroke.

You always said, “I’ll make you famous by Friday.”

I want people to be Wimbledon champions in their own bodies … Sports is one of the quickest vehicles to get people to feel good about themselves. But we’ve done a lousy job. First of all, 50 percent of the people who play today will lose. So you have a lot of unhappy people. People want to master something. We need to find ways for them to feel good about themselves, ways to make everybody a champion.

And the key to making people feel good?

Success. To be aware of who they are is number one. What are their strengths and weaknesses?

You’ve mentioned dysfunction in sports. What’s the one thing to avoid?

Parents who are getting their kicks from the process; they’re living their lives through their children.

And if you could change one thing in tennis…

I would teach the beauty of the game. If you play, you’re a winner. If you win, you’re a double winner.

And if you could change one thing in your career…

My wife says I got so interested in education, but now that I’m 71, I’m still out there on the court six, seven hours a day. A lot of guys 71 and over are just having fun. Well, I can’t. I’m still feeding balls. But I don’t have a single complaint.

You’ve been a psychologist years. So tell me, what is the allure of sports?

Young kids adore athletes because they get privileges. Even a six-year-old stickball player is treated differently. His peers adore him, they put him on a pedestal, he’s revered. But athletes should not be allowed to compete until they’ve taken a program on their social responsibilities. Athletes are no better than singers or the best spellers. Recently, it was said that what top athletes want more than anything else is to be in a Nike commercial. Athletes have money, yet they want to go even deeper into people’s hearts and minds. We transfer the importance of sports to our status in life. Athletes want all the publicity…Yet they only have a specialty in one thing. But actually the great athletes have a specialty in five or six things and they work hard for charity. [Sports] is one of the few places where you can be the biggest jerk in the world, an absolute criminal, a felon, and still be extremely popular. And our culture buys in.

Why do we even have…boxing, where the purpose is to create brain damage? Yet these events sell out. Athletes are a reflection of who we are. If we don’t like the people, shouldn’t the stands be empty? I refuse to go to hockey games. I can see fights on playgrounds—I don’t need to pay money to see them beat each other up. I don’t like it when they hire enforcers, or when a baseball pitcher hits a batter so the opposing pitcher is obligated to brush back the other team’s batter. They could maim a person for life. If you did that on the street, you’d go to prison. But in sports, you get away with things.

I’m going to run through some names. Just shoot from the hip. Tracy Austin.

Sets goals and will do anything to meet them.

Nick Bollettieri.

I think about his marriages [laughter].

Arthur Ashe.

My hero.

Agassi.

Comeback kid.

Graf.

I just love the lady. One of the greatest natural talents I’ve ever seen.

Navratilova.

Unbelievably hard worker. I used to see her in the Aspen gym pumping iron. Couldn’t believe what she went through.

Chris Evert.

Jekyll and Hyde. She’s not who she appears to be. She was all business on the court, but she could be funny. She was the opposite off-court.

Martina Hingis.

Cunning.

Lindsay Davenport.

A beautiful surprise. I didn’t think she would be that successful.

Jack Kramer.

The smartest guy I’ve run into in the game. When I see Sampras, I see Kramer. And they’re both from the same club [the Kramer Club in Rolling Hills Estates].

A technical question—how long does a ball sit on the strings?

Approximately four milliseconds. Nobody has ever felt a ball on the strings.

It’s too fast?

It’s off before it reaches the cerebral cortex.

So there’s no such thing as muscle memory?

That’s a myth. It’s really a motor program coming from the brain to the muscle.

Can you ever think too much on the court?

Oh, sure. You’ve got to shut it off. That’s why Sampras only looks at his racket. He can’t afford to start thinking. He’s learned not to let bad calls and things like that get to him.