As he sashays around the court, Vic Braden is more Buddy Hackett in Vegas than Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon. “I’m swinging in a northerly direction,” the pudgy 46-year-old explains as he purposely misses a shot, “but the ball is heading south.” He turns to face his appreciative onlookers. “I hold my breath until I get a good hit,” he continues. “Sometimes I just pass out.”
The act may not break anybody’s laugh meter, but it routinely plays to capacity audiences at the Vic Braden Tennis College, a $400,000 complex at Coto de Caza, a resort about 65 miles south of Los Angeles. For $150 per player for a weekend and $300 for five days (including room and board), seekers after true love-love (tennis talk for a 6-0, 6-0 rout) get Braden’s patter and, more important, five to six hours a day of total immersion in his unique brand of instruction. It is part serve-and-volley, part strategy and part psychology, a formula that has made Braden, according to former champion Jack Kramer, “the world’s number one tennis coach.”
Braden’s students are a serious lot; about the only swinging they do is on court. The daily regime—as thousands who are flocking to other tennis camps across the nation are also discovering—is an exhausting one. “It’s more concentrated tennis than you’ll ever play again in a lifetime,” says a recent visitor, rubbing a racket hand still blistered two weeks after his departure.
“You’ll feel like a sponge trying to absorb everything we tell you,” promises Braden. In the mornings, nine full-time instructors take the class (maximum size: 54) to the courts for two hours of drills. Before lunch they attend a lecture and film in the camp’s 100-seat classroom. Afternoons are often spent in “Braden’s Tennis Training Alleys”—17 wedge-shaped lanes, each fed by a ball machine. As the lessons proceed to shot-making and strategy, students can keep track of their game on one of four videotape “instant replay analysis centers.”
Braden is supposed to supervise the whole camp from a 30-foot-high central tower. But, he admits, “I go crazy if I see someone making the same error over and over again,” and he often hustles down to correct it. The stress is on fundamentals. “Bend the knees, get low with your thighs,” he counsels. For backhands: “Remember to A.T.A.—Air the Armpits.” “The court looks wide,” he preaches, “but it’s narrow. Hit the ball down the middle and deep—don’t get too fancy.”
Braden’s special talent is working on a student’s “inner game.” A licensed psychologist with a master’s degree from California State University in Los Angeles, Braden knows how to keep his students at ease. “If you can walk to the drinking fountain without falling over, then you have a place here,” he reassures apprehensive beginners. He works continually at “tension-reduction” with one-liners like, “If you don’t learn to volley at the net, you’ll get a fuzz sandwich [a ball in the mouth].”
The entertainment never gets in the way of honesty, however. “A lot of celebrities want me to tell them how great they are,” Braden admits. “I can’t do that.” Among those whose games he has analyzed are Dan Rowan, Mike Landon, George Kennedy, Glen Campbell and Adm. Elmo Zumwalt.
Back in his hometown of Monroe, Mich., Vic was only 11 when he was caught stealing tennis balls by the high school coach. Learn the game or go to jail, the coach warned. Braden went on to become the state champion three times. Though he is only 5’6½” (and now 185 pounds), he also quarter-backed the football team. After graduating from Kalamazoo College he turned tennis pro in 1951. “I helped make a lot of guys famous by losing in the first round of tournaments,” he remembers. Since then, he has been a tennis teacher and administrator—as executive director of the National Tennis League, now World Championship Tennis, he signed Billie Jean King to her first pro contract. Braden has also branched into film-making and writing—he has an instruction book underway—and has continued to pursue his academic interest in the application of psychology to winning tennis.
Keeping all those balls in the air, Braden and wife Melody, 32, a former student who is now the camp’s photographer, barely manage two or three sets together a month. They try to spend what time they have with Melody’s three children by her first marriage (Vic has two daughters by his first wife).
“We know a lot of executives who would give up their salaries and their positions just to beat the five top guys in their club. It’s an amazing, fanatical thing,” marvels Vic Braden. That kind of intensity makes him uncomfortable. “Tennis is supposed to be fun,” he insists. “It should be cathartic, not something that just brings on more stress.”