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

Times Staff Writer

Something weird has gotten into the clown coach's head, turned him curiously introspective, strangely brooding. As the balls rocket around his tennis college, presumably his life's work, his mind skitters among a hundred things, none of which has a lot to do with the coaching of tennis. He is not at ease.

Ever wonder about the effects of contact lenses or bifocals on an athlete's vision? Isn't it strange that Billy Kilmer threw end-over-end passes, yet could anticipate a receiver's whereabouts so well? Could you quantify that ability somehow? Say, what if you could wire a pitcher with sensors and detect--possibly alter--whatever recruitment of muscles was causing him to hang curves. What happens on a golf swing, anyway?

And this could be a problem, don't you think, now that they have biological microchips. What's to prevent the building of the ultimate on-board computer? Sergei Bubka, for all we know, could be pre-wired to pole vault 22 feet. Just push some buttons from the fifth row. Maybe we should check.

His is an intelligence that seems uncontainable. It touches whatever is at hand.

"Why do people choke," Vic Braden suddenly wonders, reclining in the luxury of the Coto de Caza resort. Oscilloscopes, heart monitors, are dancing in his busy head. "Be nice to know that."

Meanwhile, inside an air-conditioned classroom on this sun-blessed campus between Los Angeles and San Diego and inland from Laguna Beach, a video whirs, preserving Braden's rightly deserved reputation as tennis coach to the masses, not to mention the reputation as a truly funny man.

The taped Braden, years younger though no thinner, is presenting doubles strategy with the wild panache of a Catskills comic. Is this the same guy who is brooding out there on the patio? In any event, this is the Braden we had heard about, that almost everybody has.

It is a crazy yet characteristic monologue that is beaming forth. He shows the traditional position of the wife in mixed doubles, confined to a one-foot circle by the net post. "Guard this all-important territory," should be the husband's respectful instructions.

He describes net play, with sound effects, including a recipe for "fuzz sandwiches."

In one tactical scenario, where something has obviously gotten out of hand, one of the X's on his overhead screen has elected to smash a volley at the opposing X, who is 20 yards off the court and fading fast. "We didn't need that point, anyway." Fuzz sandwich, with bluster and prickles.

The students, who pay up to $400 a week for this and a lot of hands-on instruction on his various high-tech courts and hitting alleys, are all but on the floor at the end of this cumulative comedy. One of Braden's coaches says as he leaves the room, "I've seen that tape a hundred times. It's still funny."

Of course, they learn tennis, too. Either here, from his books--there are 250,000 in print--from his tennis columns, from his spots on NBC or ESPN or PBS, or from his lectures in each of the 50 states. Basically, no matter what is in the crowded corners of his mind or in the futuristic basement lab of his college, he is a teacher.

Jack Kramer, whose relationship with Braden goes back to the '50s, says Braden is one of the best at what he does, whatever exactly it is he happens to be doing at the moment.

"He knows the grips and mechanics, weight transfer, all that stuff," Kramer said. "But the edge he has on everybody is, he's a great motivator. He always had a way of imparting knowledge, but the real key was the motivation. He had the way to get a person to spend four hours practicing instead of one."

Some think it's the humor, although that didn't come along until later. Braden, chubby and impish, probably never reminded anybody of an accountant, but he didn't start as a tennis court jester either. Still, that is his trademark.

It's not that he says funny things, exactly, it's that he says things funny. Talking about the distinction between a wooden racket and one of any other material, he sighs. He might say, "Who cares? They both go far beyond your ability to play the game. The real trouble is the toad at the end of the grip."

Or telling some students as they drift over to him that the real reason you spend $40 on a tennis lesson is so the pro "doesn't mess with my strokes. At best, I'll get a good tan."

Braden, 54, takes coaching more seriously than any of this might suggest. Underlying his philosophy is that virtually nobody knows what he's doing and those that think they do are perpetuating a deadly arrogance about the sport.

This feeling goes back a long way, to when he was on the tour, which is nothing like today's, by the way. It goes back to when there were 12 players who would travel about, six stars and six "donkeys," like Braden. "I made a lot of people famous," he says. "They'd beat me fast and then go out and see the city."

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."

At any one of those levels, he could have succeeded on a more or less permanent basis. "But maybe he's passed this, too," Kramer says.

Because something has gotten into Braden's head, or else it was always there and is just now blossoming fully.

Kramer says it has to do with Braden "meeting that other guy, the investigative guy," meaning Dr. Gideon Ariel, the authority on bio-mechanics who shares space at the adjoining Coto Research Center. But such a partnership was inevitable. Braden was headed for this, away from tennis, almost from the beginning. He always did want to know how things worked, how to make them work better.

It may have started in the early '60s, when he bought a high speed camera from Bob Richards, the Olympic pole vaulter. Ever after, Braden filled his head and his office with freeze frames, stuff like how long is a tennis ball on the court (three milliseconds). At first, what he learned proved useful in tennis instruction, especially in the debunking of the theory that this sport or any other belonged to the physically gifted.

For example, he discovered, with a machine that measured eye-hand coordination, that one of the worst scorers in this presumably important skill had been a Wimbledon champion. But he was excellent in anticipation.

"Now think about that," he says. "Obviously there must be people who are slower, yet have the ability to anticipate, who don't realize they can play top-flight tennis. There are people who have great skills who don't have particularly great eye movement. The masses are very sharp people; they can learn. Of course the attitude is that they can never do this; they should be spectators."

This was encouraging to his original point of view. "I'm just saying there are an awful lot of people not reaching their performance level because of attitude," he said.

But his increasingly wide-ranging research took him into other areas. For instance, does McEnroe really see the ball better than the beleaguered linesman? McEnroe's arrogance had finally provoked this study and what Braden found, against his own expectation, was that the linesman was actually four times more accurate than the player.

This investigation eventually couldn't be confined by tennis. He has had Edwin Moses, Steve Grogan and Al Oerter to his futuristic facility, a basement with banks of computers that can reduce every possible athletic movement to an electronic signal.

What if, through film or whatever, you discovered that a javelin thrower got the most snap from his arm when it was bent at a particular angle? Why, you could devise an exercise to increase strength at just that angle. Maybe it doesn't work that way. But what if it did?

Athletes are a tough sell and resist his invitations to further testing. They're already making millions. What can this crazy scientist do for their mysterious art?

But Braden is determined. For the moment, sports companies subsidize much of the operation, but the testing of golf clubs or balls eventually ends up in a private file--would Wilson tell MacGregor?--benefiting only the sportings goods outfit.

Still, this is his enthusiasm. As he sits on the patio near his tennis courts, painted and marked to his own design, it is somewhat difficult to get him to talk about tennis, or to stay on the subject long.

Finally he jumps up. He wants to show his research center, a $3.5-billion project. Behind locked doors, below the tennis offices, is a room banked with exercise machines, each hooked to a computer. Braden, quite alive among all this gadgetry, is slipping in computer discs, explaining the functions, the possibilities. Like Jack Kramer, a frequent visitor, you "keep your mouth shut to hide your ignorance."

Braden, who hopes to build ski and golf colleges similar to his internationally flung tennis college, is off and running. There's a force plate on a track right outside the computer-driven facility. It can measure, well, one loses track. But it's there for a reason.

"You can't violate physical laws, that's the beauty of science," he says. "You hit a certain kind of ball a certain way, you can say where it will land."

The mystery of sport is laid out on a bar graph on the computer screen. It's discouraging to a visitor, not to understand what Braden is really doing here. And he senses it. "The press comes all the time," he says. "But nobody writes about this."

His curiosity is daunting and confusing. What to make of Vic Braden, clown coach, who is quietly tooling away in a chrome lab, bytes of information unraveling a golf swing, freeze frames putting bat on ball for four milliseconds? Tough to pigeon-hole.

Thankfully, he is on video upstairs, a younger but no thinner Vic Braden instructing the masses, the toads, in a happy hysteria that can make you laugh, or learn.

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