Through the 1970s and 1980s, when American tennis was strong and players like Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe were the American face of the sport on court, Vic Braden was (with Bud Collins) the face of American tennis in TV commentary. Collins called the matches; Braden popped up everywhere to give tips on how to play the game.
Tennis has receded enough in popularity that no current figure quite matches his role. The closest sports-world counterparts would be some leading basketball (Phil Jackson?) or football (John Madden?) coach.
Vic Braden appeared on late-night talk shows and even on network news shows. He wrote a popular series of books and produced instructional videos. His name and always-smiling face were familiar in ads and on the airwaves, in a way that seemed appropriate for the de-country-club-ization of tennis that, with their respective styles, Connors, McEnroe, Bobby Riggs, and Billie Jean King were bringing about.
What I hadn't realized, until I had a chance to meet him in the 1990s, is that beneath this court-jester exterior Vic Braden was a deep and serious person, and a good one.
Twenty years ago, when I had finished a very long book writing stint (for Looking at the Sun), I somehow talked my wife and kids into letting me go through detox via immersions in two tennis camps. First, Nick Bolletieri's, in Sarasota, Florida; then Vic Braden's, in Coto de Caza, California.
About Bolletieri's I'll simply say: you can find someone else to tell you that he is a great guy. My stint there toughened and toned me up. Plus, I got to see a newly arrived little blond-ponytailed girl from Russia who was walloping the ball, and who I have always assumed/ wanted to believe was the just-off-the-boat Maria Sharapova.
About Vic Braden I will say that he seemed to be a born teacher and evangelist, and was someone I wanted to stay in touch with over the years. In the September, 1994 issue of this magazine, I wrote about going to both camps. I can't give you a link to the article, since it's from that twilight zone before our articles were on line (yet is not yet far enough into the recesses of history to put online for antiquarian purposes). In that piece I said that while Bollettieri's operation was devoted to prodigies and couldn't quite conceal its disdain for adult plodders like me, Vic Braden—who, in contrast to Bollettieri, was a huge, in-person presence at his camp—seemed excited by the idea of dealing with mediocre players, because there was so much more he could teach us.
An article I wrote two years later, called "Throwing Like a Girl," is online and talks about Vic Braden's concept of the "kinetic chain" as the key to many successful athletic movements, from golf or baseball swings to tennis strokes to throwing any kind of ball. I got the feeling around him that he loved teaching tennis as a subset of his love for teaching in general, which in turn was a subset of his fascination with looking into how people could make the most of their opportunities and potential.
As you will have guessed by this point, I am saying all this because I have just heard that Vic Braden died two days ago, at the age of 85. He was a genuinely accomplished, deep, influential, loving and loved man, who deserves to be noted by people who were not around during his media heyday, and to be taken more seriously by people who are aware only of his corny on-air routines. You can read some tennis-world appreciations of him here, here, and here. Although I haven't found any of his 1970s-80s TV appearances on line, these instructional videos give a feel for his style. The third is about his approach as applied more broadly than just to tennis technique.
On the low volley:
On the forehand backswing:
On changing the backhand, but really about change in general:
And, why not, a surreal moment from a Davis Cup match in Ecuador featuring Arthur Ashe:
My sympathies to his family, and my gratitude for having known him.
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