YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 2 of 3)

THE WACKY WORLD OF VIC BRADEN : He's Striving for Knowledge at Tennis College

August 25, 1986|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

Anyway, once he asked one of the stars, Pancho Gonzalez, for help on his forehand. Gonzalez explained the wrist movement, but it didn't make any sense to Braden. If he did what Gonzalez said, the ball hit his foot--not a very effective forehand to his way of thinking.

"You can't do that," Braden protested. Gonzalez, pained at the impudence, said: "This is why you're not making it, kid."

Nobody did what he said or said what he did. It bothered Braden, this arrogance. Worse, it carried over into the coaching. And that really bothered Braden, a schooled educator. He is a post-graduate psychologist, groomed as a school counselor.

"A coach is more powerful in many places than a parent," Braden says. "A kid will go out and do things for a coach they'd never do for a parent. They'd die for a coach. Their influence is tremendous."

And often negative.

"I did a little survey," he said. "I asked 100 people if they were affected by a coach in some way that has adversely affected them. Of 100 people, 100 said something negative happened that carried through in their self-image later in life.

"Now where does that come from? Well, now you look at people who are coaches and most are successful athletes. Right away, you've got a tremendous bias. The best thing that could have happened to sports is to have people who didn't make the team doing the coaching. We'd be much farther ahead in a lot of ways."

He believes that this inherent arrogance is what pricked the ballooning sport of tennis, taking its pool of 40 million participants down to 18 million since the boom of the '70s.

"We'd be No. 1 over all sports, yet the people were arrogant," he said. "People experimented, found it difficult and dropped out. The attitude was always the students were coming to our sport. Wrong. We're coming to their sport."

It's different at the Vic Braden Tennis College. Or at least Braden hopes it is. He and his coaches, recognizing that students might respond more to aural instruction than, say, visual, or even hands-on, touching, are almost free-form in their coaching. What works, works.

As for arrogance, Braden tries to weed that out when he hires coaches. He'd rather have a coach who, failing to get something across to a student, worries about it, than somebody who comes in with a resume of tournament wins. As far as that goes, beginning players are invited. "I'm really looking for people who have never hit the ball," he said. This is another way of saying: "Inexperience wanted. Toads need apply."

This egalitarian outlook, though rare in the aristocracy of tennis, is natural coming from Braden, who grew up pre-war poor. He wouldn't even be in the game if he hadn't been caught copping some balls outside a municipal court. The person who nabbed him said that he could go to the cops or try the game.

The rest is a kind of history you've heard before. The point is that Braden didn't learn the game at a country club, and he never wanted to teach it there.

Before he taught it anywhere, he had some strange career stops. Assistant basketball coach at the University of Toledo. Elementary school teacher in Topanga. But he was born to coach, at camps, clubs, wherever he could, inspiring the masses with his vision of an anxiety-less sport. What else can you say of a man who once tried to teach blind children to play, calling out numbers to get the racket on an invisible ball.

Kramer, whose own Rolling Hills club was headed by Braden, credits Braden with much of the "happy growth of tennis." Part of it was the timing, no doubt, yet Kramer says "One Vic Braden is worth a lot of champions in helping the sport. The (John) McEnroes, (Bjorn) Borgs, (Jimmy) Connors, they've been great. But I don't think any one of them has created the interest in the sport Vic has."

What Braden has gotten out of this is anybody's guess. Though he appears finally to be ensconced in some affluence in the wildness of Trabuco Canyon, it is obvious that he never did anything purely for money. He once urged Kramer to bail out of their tennis club for the same money they had put into it, just because some members resented their departure. And when he did find someone interested in creating resort traffic at one of his campuses, do you think he negotiated for money? He did not. He negotiated for a research center.

"I don't think he looks at money in a traditional way," Kramer said. "He doesn't look at it as security, for when he's 65. I don't think he's a hoarder, unless it's of film."

If he wanted money, he probably could have had more, but his interests interfere. In the beginning, he wanted to get kids to play tennis.

Then he wanted to handle talented kids, such as Tracy Austin, see how high he could take them. But they eventually moved out of his life and he couldn't get used to that.

Then he wanted to help the masses play tennis--"to learn tennis faster, to enjoy longer," as he likes to say. "I'll make you famous by Friday."

Los Angeles Times Articles