Class of 2017
Contributions to Tennis
VIC BRADEN: LEARN & LAUGH
Credit Lawrence Alto. One day in the summer of 1942, in the small blue collar Michigan town of Monroe, Mr. Alto, an employee with the city’s recreation department, spotted a young boy hiding behind wooden fence located near several tennis courts. As tennis balls occasionally bounced over the fence, the boy would take them and use his fine throwing arm to relay them to a friend.
The next thing the boy knew, one of his balls had landed in Mr. Alto’s hand. Caught in the act of thievery, the boy promptly received a message from Mr. Alto: play tennis or go to jail. Since the boy loved sports – baseball, football and, most of all, basketball – he figured it was worth it to pick up the wooden stick and hit a few of those white balls he’d tried to pilfer. Within five years, Vic Braden had won three Michigan state high school championships, been ranked #25 in the country in the juniors and earned a scholarship to Kalamazoo College. As he often said, “Tennis changes lives. It sure changed mine.”
Over seventy years after he’d met Mr. Alto, Braden had left tennis an amazing legacy. He had taught thousands – from beginners to weekend warriors to world-class competitors. He had also taught the teachers. On a first-hand and first name basis, Braden provided hundreds of instructors with the tools they needed to teach their students. At conferences and seminars, tournaments and practices, on every continent, on the court, at home in his many research labs and all hours of the day and night on the phone or on his computer, Braden lived for the chance to help people become better tennis players.
A RARE COMBINATION: SCIENCE AND HUMOR
He’d done it his own way, creating an unsurpassed blend of common sense, closely observed studies of the greats, scientific research, kindness and wit. As the writer Leo Rosten had said, “Humor is the affectionate communication of insight.” None in tennis brought this concept to life better than Vic Braden.
Throughout the 1950s, he was a whirlwind – a tennis teacher and basketball coach in Toledo, Ohio; a winter foray to Southern California, where he taught tennis in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, along the way giving lessons to such Hollywood folk as actresses Lana Turner and Debbie Reynolds. In 1955, Braden permanently relocated to Southern California, but not strictly to teach tennis. Topanga Elementary School had hired him as a janitor and sixth grade teacher. During his three years there, Braden also earned his Master’s Degree in educational psychology. Persistently curious and inclusive, Braden was a special kind of community builder, thousands engaged by his ideas and ability to get them across in a way at once thoughtful, friendly and entertaining. One of Braden’s many mantras: “Laugh and learn.”
ENTER JACK KRAMER
Braden relentlessly expressed his appreciation for all the people who’d helped him. But arguably, none was more significant than the man Braden met in 1953. Jack Kramer then was both the number one tennis player in the world and its preeminent promoter -- that is, of the barnstorming troupe of pros that had left the amateur world behind and instead opted to crisscross the globe in order to earn a legitimate living. Though Braden would occasionally play these events, Kramer recognized that the young man’s best skills were in the realm of promotion. As the tour made its way to a particular city, Braden was the one talking up the players to local media and anyone else interested in seeing them play. Along the way, he’d also serve as a diplomat on behalf of the tour’s one rebel, the fiery Pancho Gonzales.
During those years, Braden continued to study the game closely. In his younger days, he’d hitch-hiked to Detroit to closely study Don Budge, punching holes in a 3x5 card to better observe the principles of Budge’s famed backhand. On the Kramer tour, night after night, Braden was able to consistently witness the work habits and techniques of the very best in the world. All of this would fuel his own approach to teaching, from grips, spins and swings to footwork and psychology. Said Kramer years later, “Vic knew our guys and their games better than they did.”
A CLUB OF HIS OWN
But as much as Braden relished trekking from one city to another with the pros, he also yearned for a single spot where he could build a tennis community. In the early 1960s, he spotted a prime piece of land on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a beautiful Los Angeles suburb. Kramer made the purchase, Braden directed the construction, and by 1962, The Jack Kramer Club had opened its doors.
This was the place where Braden’s reputation began to soar. His lessons were not just attended, but watched by people keen to absorb his ideas and take in his humor. “Show me a dinker,” he would say about a playing style many recreational players despised competing against, “and I will show you a room full of trophies.” Students would come from all over the world for private lessons.
One of the Kramer Club’s employees was a woman named Jeanne Austin. When the club opened, she was the mother of four children – Pam, Jeff, Doug and John, all Braden students. In 1962, Jeanne was pregnant again, which hardly stopped her from continuing to play tennis. She and Braden would win a mixed doubles tournament that year. And by December, Jeanne had given birth to her fifth child, a girl named Tracy. Four of the Austin children would play pro tennis, Tracy rising to number one in the world and entering the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1992. From ages two to seven, she learned the game from Braden, praising how “he always made it fun.”
TAKING TEACHING OUT OF THE STONE AGE
The game was growing rapidly all over the world. The pros Braden had travelled with – Kramer most of all – had kept the candle burning for Open tennis. At last, Open tennis happened in 1968. Here too, Braden was front and center, working closely with George McCall, head of the National Tennis League, a co-ed troupe of pros that included Gonzales, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Billie Jean King and six other prominent players. All ten members of the National Tennis League would end up in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
But again, Braden’s real passion was for instruction. He was convinced that there must be a better way to teach tennis. “We’re in the Stone Age,” he would often say. By the early 1970s, as the tennis boom took off, Braden set his sights on a new concept: a tennis college, a place equipped with courts, hitting lanes and, a particular Braden passion, extensive video study – all the better to truly research and understand how to best hit a tennis ball. Topspin was not generated by rolling over the ball. If you did that, Braden joked, the ball would bounce in your toe. The key to the serve had less to do with scratching your back and more to do with building a smooth, kinetic chain. It was more efficient to wait to return serve with a forehand grip than a backhand grip. The loop backswing is more efficient and generates more power than the straight backswing. On and on and on.
TENNIS' PREMIER STUDENT
Braden’s relentless curiosity made him tennis’ premier student. Well into his 70s and 80s, he remained driven, engaged in dozens of projects – research studies, new forms of video, seminars, articles, books, time with charitable organizations. Hearing from a 60-year-old about a new tennis competition for players 90 years old, Braden said, “Fantastic. Just think: 30 years to practice and get ready.” The title of his last book was fitting: If I’m Only 22, How Come I’m 82? Tennis Is More Than Just A Sport.
Perhaps most of all, though, Braden’s gift was his exceptional empathy. Well aware of the fragility within everyone, Vic Braden’s kindness and generosity were the alpha and omega of a man who gave his all to the tennis.
-- Joel Drucker, International Tennis Hall of Fame Historian-at-Large