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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Remembering Vic Braden, 1929-2014

I don't want to let any more time go by before acknowledging the passing of Vic Braden, one of the most important coaches and personalities in tennis, who died last week at age 85.

I always say I was drawn to tennis because I grew up in Kalamazoo, home of the USTA 18s and 16s Nationals, but Braden also was an important influence on my love for the game. Although I had little experience with actually playing tennis, I eagerly looked forward to his lessons on PBS. Even if you saw only one, you couldn't help but gravitate to the sport by his inclusive and always funny commentary.

It was quite a few years later when I learned Braden was from Michigan and captain of the tennis team here at Kalamazoo College, graduating in 1951. Until the remodeling of the Stowe Tower a few years ago, there was a brass plate that read "Vic Braden Lived Here," a reference to the ball closet where he slept his senior year.

I interviewed Braden for the ustaboys.com website back in 2004, when he returned to Kalamazoo for the first time in 40 years to serve as Honorary Referee for the Kalamazoo tournament. He told me how he came to play at Kalamazoo College, and how his job maintaining the then red clay courts made living in the Tower the best option, financially and practically, for him.

Braden, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by Kalamazoo College in 2008, brought his omnipresent video camera with him to Kalamazoo in 2004 and for several days filmed juniors and spoke to private and college coaches and the media about his latest research into brain typing. I remember having him tell me that a player's willingness to serve and volley was very nearly genetic.

Braden was not only a great teacher of the game, but a great student of it as well. He was curious about every aspect of tennis and never settled for conventional wisdom. His ability to form an instant bond with anyone who cared about the sport was astounding and he could communicate a simple concept as memorably as anyone. To this day, I can't watch a tennis match without thinking of him saying, 'Hit it deep and you'll famous by Thursday.'

Braden obituaries have come from many different publications, and in a tribute to his vast influence on the game, each one provides a different insight and is worth reading.

The New York Times: Vic Braden, Tennis's Pied Piper, Dies at 85

The Washington Post: Vic Braden, innovative tennis coach and sport science pioneer, dies at 85

Steve Tignor provides his usual thoughtful and nuanced look at Braden's career for Tennis.com.

Joel Drucker gives his special insight, not only into all that Braden gave to the sport, but what the sport gave to him for Tennis Channel.

James Fallows, who took lessons from Braden, wrote this remembrance for the Atlantic, which includes several vintage videos.

I have my own vintage Braden, from 2005, when Braden and Jim Martz of Florida Tennis Magazine agreed to let me post on ZooTennis an article of Braden's that had appeared in the magazine the previous month.  I'm including it below.

An Inside Look at the Brain of a Champion  by Vic Braden

I've been spending a great deal of time these last few years trying to determine what makes a champion and whether we can predict that one has the potential to be an international champion.

I have had discussions with neuroscientists,  brain typists, a tennis playing psychiatrist who has done more than 28,000 brain scans, famous coaches and pro players.  The bottom line is that there has been progress in understanding how a champion's brain works, but there are still many unanswered questions.

I have to go back to my years of assisting with the management of pro tours.  I'm currently archiving 50 years of film, over 30 years of video and about 40 years of audio tapes.  I find that today's champions seem to think like the champions from 50 years ago.  However, this is not based upon brain scans, but anecdotal records.  So, what are the similarities?

  • The champions have had a goal of becoming a big-time winner at a relatively early age.
  • There also was nothing that seemed to be able to deter them from reaching their goal.
  • They were keen analysts when observing the strengths and weaknesses in potential opponents.
  • They seemed to have the ability to analyze their own game accurately.
  • They seemed to be able to analyze quickly when they were getting the right information from coaches.
  • When most players were calling it a day on the practice court, future champions were just getting warmed up.
  • Champions talked more about hating to lose than basking in the glory of victories.
  • The top players seemed to have a unique ability to focus on execution in tight situations rather than worrying about the outcome of the point, or the match.
  • Champions seemed to enjoy the pressure of tiebreakers rather than fearing it.
  • Champions gave away nothing: they would beat an injured player as fast as they could.