Every year some organization selects the Teacher of the Year in America, and the winner troops to the White House to pose with the President. It always makes an AP wirephoto. If the winner is a woman, she is pinned with an orchid corsage. If the winner is a man, his wife gets the orchid.
On the other hand, the Coach of the Year is the man with the free car from Midtown Olds who went 9-1 and knows how to recruit blue-chippers. When we think of coaches, we think of martinets or of chisel-jawed men with clipboards or of tanned blond pros in pastels, who will, for $20 or so, agree to be separated from the knowledge that you must keep your head down and follow through. Coaches are not necessarily more athletic than teachers. In fact, coaches are just teachers with enormous egos and funny clothes.
It does not matter what sport. In the case of Vic Braden, it is tennis, but it could just as well have been basketball, which is still his favorite game, or it could have been any other, for coaching is a vocation if you want to teach and are not just after a bid to the Peach Bowl. Braden thrives, as real teachers do, not on blue-chippers, but on wet puppy dogs. When a well-coordinated student smacks a classic shot, he nods acknowledgment, due respect. Dealer hits on 16, sticks on 17. When a dish rag of an athlete manages for the first time somehow to get the racket on the ball sufficiently to direct it—a dying quail—over the net, Braden glows. There is real joy to the man. He laughs and cheers and exhibits the warm sense of accomplishment that men with attach� cases never find searching clients' eyes over the tops of menus at expense-account lunches.
Many people endorse Braden as the best tennis coach in the country. When he gave private lessons, he was booked up to 2� years in advance. The Association of Tennis Professionals held its first annual honors banquet last fall, and the Children's Tennis Award, for contribution to youth, went to Braden. His Saturday mornings were—and still are—set aside for teaching kids free. For a time, at his own expense, Braden worked with blind children, teaching them to hit tennis balls by calling out code numbers as a clue to where the ball was headed. It was a fanciful exercise. A blind person could never play tennis seriously as, say, he might bowl. "Yes," says Braden, "but can you imagine the thrill, the sense of achievement, a blind child would get from hitting a moving target?" It was very selfish of him, really. He would get goose bumps every time a sightless kid succeeded. It really conveys the wrong impression to say that Braden is the best tennis coach. But it would be fitting one year to pin a corsage on Mrs. Braden and have her husband meet the President.
One can best understand Vic Braden by recognizing where he stands. He is one step ahead of his expectations, but one step behind his goals—a happy dreamer, of which there are too few left in America. A chubby imp, ingenuous and utterly devoted, his altruism would bore many people and put them off—for 20 years now disbelievers have regularly exclaimed, "You must be phony"—were it not that he is so humorous. Braden is very nearly a stand-up comedian, suggesting some kind of bizarre combination of Norman Vincent Peale and Rodney Dangerfield.
He is utterly determined to revolutionize the game of tennis. And, given the resources—he has been broke all his life—he thinks this could be easily accomplished. He says tennis is in the Stone Age. "If we had the proper bio-mechanical teaching devices right now," he says, "and I don't mean anything extraordinary—all they would really require would be some study and some money—then you could give me eight good athletes, age 13, I don't mean great athletes, just the equivalent to what's around now in tennis, and five years from now, when those kids are 18, I will have all eight in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon."
Wait a minute now. Just your eight? Five years from now, guys like Connors and Borg will still be kids; Vilas and Amritraj, Tanner, guys like that would be at the height of their powers. Not one of those would get into the quarterfinals against your eight teen-agers? "No contest," Braden replies, and he is not being a braggart, merely visionary.
The instrument with which Braden is going to overhaul tennis is something known as The National Foundation For Tennis Research. Its mailing address is: The Vic Braden Tennis College, Coto de Caza, in Trabuco Canyon, Calif., which is a gorgeous $400,000 campus. The National Foundation For Tennis Research is, on the other hand, pretty much a figment of the imagination. It has always been Braden's No. 1 dream, but it exists mostly on paper, and that only because a businessman once got his lawyer to draw up the incorporation papers as a favor for Braden. They had been involved in a tennis deal that fell through. "You're not a tennis pro, you're a missionary," the businessman said in exasperation. "What do you really want?"
"I want The National Foundation For Tennis Research," Braden said.
"What the hell kind of a deal is that?" the man asked.