The producer of "Vic Braden's Tennis for the Future," which premieres tonight at 10:30 on Channel 26, says that the Public Broadcasting Service's 13-week series of half-hour lessons "sets out to do for tennis what Julia Child did for French cooking."
This is a peculiar notion. Hitting a decent backhand may be no harder than whipping egg whites into a divine souffle, but is probably more difficult to teach systematically. The skills involved in becoming a good French chef and an accomplished tennis player are different, as are the means of communicating them. Julia Child taught us how to serve cream puffs; Vic Braden wants us to stop serving them.
In fact, there really are only two similarties. Braden's series, like the enormously popular programs that turned the mysteries of French cuisine into Child's play, ofers step-by-step lessons to help us master an art that is not as easy as it seems. And jocular Uncle Ci, like the elegantly chatty Aunt Julia, is a distinctive, likeable and gifted teacher.
Child's shows became a landmark in "how-to" television, appealing primarily to the active chef interested in expanding practical skills and creativity in the kitchen. Similarly, the Braden tennis lessons are aimed squarely at the player -- primarily the novice and "intermediate" -- who cares enough about tennis to want to improve his or her game.
This is not a series for the armchair athlete, the spectator who wants to know about Wimbledon or what Bjorn Borg is really like. If you don't play tennis, or don't want to, you might as well turn to "20/20" or "The Rockford Files." It self-improvement on the court is not your bag, Braden will strike you as a buffoon, his humor as funny as a fuzzy ball in the eye.
"Tennis for the Future," a TV adaptation of Braden's acclaimed instructional book of the same name, will not even give you the tennis bug. But if you've already been bitten, you can learn as much here as in a $20 private lesson. This week, it's rudiments of the game and the forehand. Next week, the backhand. Then the serve, the volley, approach shots, spin and service returns, the overhead, the lob and drop shot, singles and doubles strategy, conditioning and psychology.
The series, taped by Boston's WGBH-TV at Professor Braden's "tennis college" in southern California, is painfully unslick at times, and much of the celebrated humor is really sophmoric slapstick. Still, Braden is an eminently agreeable ham, and has Silly-Putty face and cornball delivery are undeniably part of his flair. He is also a true student of the game, and a superb instructor. Pay attention and you will pick up a valuable education in the fundamentals of strokes and strategy, and quite a few useful reminders and tips on how to improve your game.
Never a top-level player, Braden at 51 is pudgy, boundlessly energetic and probably America's best-known tennis teacher. He has done detailed studies of the physics, biomechanics, psychology and physiology of the game, and uses sophisticated scientific data to illustrate simple truths.
If fact, his classroom technique borrow almost as much from Mr. Wizard as form the Three Stooges. In the opening lesson, for instance he explains why ophthalmologists have concluded that it really is impossible to "keep your eye on the ball"; uses an electronic "anticipatory reflex timer" to measure in milliseconds the time lag between brain perception and muscle reaction; cites scholarly research into "The Effective Turbulence Upon a Sphere With Protruding Wool Particles," and uses films he took of pro star Tracy Austin when she was 5 years old to demonstrate how efficient body balance and weight distribution generate power more effectively than a hard swing.
He also makes a lot of funny faces and forces one-liners that are not as amusing as the frequent cuts to an audience of tanned students convulsed in laughter would suggest. Rodney Dangerfield he ain't. But as a standup comic, Vic Braden is a terrific tennis teacher. Maybe even the Julia Child of tennis.