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All's Quiet : Eight Years Ago, Tennis Guru Vic Braden Decided to Tear Out the Family Phone

November 24, 1985|LINDEN GROSS | Linden Gross is assistant features editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

It's 10:30 Monday morning and Vic Braden, considered by many to be the country's finest tennis coach, is operating on only two hours' sleep. He announces this to excuse his disheveled appearance, but one suspects that unruly hair is as much a part of him as are ruddy, full cheeks and an irrepressible laugh. He and his wife, Melody, have spent most of the night poring over their federal income tax forms (their extension is over), and now, still bleary-eyed, they must face another long day that will include teaching, working on a new film project, putting together a conference on junior athletes and packing for a business trip to Europe. That plus the responsibilities of running seven "tennis colleges" around the world.

When the Bradens finally leave the office 10 hours later, however, they're confident that no after-hours calls will interrupt the little time they have to relax at home together. How can a couple with business ventures in five time zones be so sure of being left alone? At a time when most consumers are adding telephones to their bathrooms, backyards, cars and briefcases, Vic and Melody Braden manage without one.

"I always thought that in business it was mandatory to have a phone at home," Vic says. But eight years after removing theirs, he's firmly convinced of the opposite. "We do a lot of sports research here, and people in Australia and Japan would call at 3 a.m. wanting to know who'd won a tennis match in 1938."

Late-night calls were only part of the problem. "Vic had gotten into the habit of using the phone all the time, even on his days off," Melody explains. "I began to feel like I was less important to him than all these people on the other end of the line." Melody laughs, and the sudden burst seems too loud for her bird-like frame. "We probably could have solved the whole thing with a good therapist."

They didn't get rid of the telephone right away. Instead, they got an unlisted number. That didn't work. Vic just couldn't say no when people asked for it. They tried changing the number half a dozen times. They installed an answering machine, but when a call would come through, Vic just had to pick up the telephone. Finally, in 1977, they decided to take the phone out.

Melody adjusted easily. "It was comforting to know that when I stepped into our house, that was it," she says. "It wasn't a question of leaving work behind, because Vic and I work at home. But not having to deal with business calls there gives us the chance to step aside, to plan together instead of merely reacting."

Not having a telephone was more of a problem for Vic. "He used to sneak away to make evening calls," Melody says. The sense of privacy and complete escape, however, soon superseded any feelings of inconvenience or isolation. When the Bradens moved to their present house on the perimeter of the tennis college in Coto de Caza, they never bothered to have telephone lines installed. "It's peaceful," Vic says. "At our house you hear only the coyotes. It's such a beautiful place to sleep."

The office telephone rings, interrupting him. "Osaka, Japan," he explains apologetically as he takes the call. It's a bad connection; language difficulties don't help. "This is where we make up for not having a phone," he admits when he finally hangs up. "By the time we get home we have laryngitis and cauliflower ear.

"We have every reason to be on the phone--here and at home. Ninety percent of our business is done on the telephone. But we've discovered that when someone knows that they can't reach you after a certain hour, they make sure to call before then."

Not everyone was thrilled with the Bradens' no-telephone concept. Store managers and loan officers often refused to extend credit or accept checks. "Most people who don't have a phone have just been paroled," says Vic. The local public school didn't like the idea either. Friends and acquaintances not only disapproved, they disbelieved. "They'd say, 'Suurrre'--then look through our house to find where we'd hidden it."

The most systematic attack on their decision, however, came from their three children, who recall always carrying handfuls of dimes in their pockets and spending evenings at pay phones.

It's been eight years. "I don't hate phones," Vic says. "But the only precious commodity I own is time, and I can't enjoy my life if I'm on the phone describing it."

Vic and Melody Braden realize that they're out of step. "People will probably think we're weird," Melody admits. "But it's easy to lose track of what's important. If you had only 24 hours left to live, how would you spend them?"

Probably not on the telephone.

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