Vic Braden, an innovative tennis coach who used computers, psychology, television and laughter to popularize his sport and who made key contributions to using biomechanics in sports, died Oct. 6 at his home in Trabuco Canyon, Calif. He was 85.
He had congestive heart failure, said his wife, Melody Braden.
Mr. Braden, a onetime professional tennis player who later became a school psychologist, used both disciplines in creating his original and widely popular approach to coaching tennis. He rolled tennis balls to toddlers, taught the sport to people in wheelchairs, ran a chain of “tennis colleges” and made instructional videos viewed by millions.
In everything he did, Mr. Braden brought a boundless enthusiasm for his sport and an irrepressible humor that made his technical training easier to master.
His slogan: “Laugh and win.”
“Braden is very nearly a stand-up comedian,” Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated wrote in 1976, “suggesting some kind of bizarre combination of Norman Vincent Peale and Rodney Dangerfield.”
Despite being paunchy and only 5-foot-6, Mr. Braden played on the fledgling professional tennis circuit in the early 1950s, but he soon realized his greatest talent lay in teaching. Before he became a full-time tennis coach, he was a sixth-grade teacher and school psychologist in California.
Even after he became one of the best-known tennis coaches in the country, Mr. Braden kept his psychologist’s license active.
“He knows the grips and mechanics, weight transfer, all that stuff,” tennis star Jack Kramer told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “But the edge he has on everybody is, he’s a great motivator.”
Mr. Braden’s best-known protegee was Tracy Austin, a two-time U.S. Open champion in the 1980s, whom he began coaching when she was 2. He worked with other professionals, but he focused more attention on taking tennis to the masses, setting up a chain of Vic Braden Tennis Colleges throughout the United States and abroad. He had an instructional series on PBS in the early 1980s and published several books about tennis.
With his working-class background, his elementary school teaching experience and his one-liners, Mr. Braden sought to take the mystery and snobbery out of his sport.
“If you can walk to the drinking fountain without falling over,” he often said, “you can learn tennis.”
From the time he was a teenager and hitchhiked from his Michigan home to see tennis star Don Budge in Detroit, Mr. Braden had studied the mechanics of his sport.
“This was when I realized that Budge drew the power for that great backhand from his thighs,” Mr. Braden told Sports Illustrated. “I’d never seen that stated anywhere else. Don probably didn’t even know it himself.”
Mr. Braden discovered that many standard ways of teaching tennis strokes were not just wrong, in his view, but physically impossible.
He developed simplified ways of teaching the sport, based on his growing knowledge of physiology and the emerging science of biomechanics. In the 1970s, he began filming the movement of athletes, then analyzing the results with computers.
He applied his ideas to tennis, but athletes from other sports began to ask Mr. Braden to examine golf swings, pitching motions in baseball and the complexities of throwing a discus. Violinists and classical conductors came to him to have their movements filmed and analyzed.
With his ideas reaching people in other fields, Mr. Braden found himself in greater demand as a tennis coach. One-on-one coaching sessions were booked more than two years in advance.
He had dozens of celebrity clients, but every Saturday morning Mr. Braden took time to teach children for free.
“A coach is more powerful in many places than a parent,” he told the Times. “A kid will go out and do things for a coach they’d never do for a parent. Their influence is tremendous.”
Victor Kenneth Braden Jr. was born Aug. 2, 1929, in Monroe, Mich. His father worked in a paper mill.
Mr. Braden played other sports through high school and turned to tennis only after he was caught stealing balls that went over the fence at a local recreational center.
“The man who caught me,” Mr. Braden later recalled, “said I could either go to jail or learn to play tennis.”
He became a three-time state champion in high school and was captain of the tennis team at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College, from which he graduated in 1951. Two of his brothers also became tennis coaches.
From 1952 to 1955, while playing professional tennis, Mr. Braden was also head tennis coach and assistant basketball coach at the University of Toledo.
He then moved to Southern California, where he taught school and received a master’s degree in psychology from California State University at Los Angeles. In the early 1960s, he began teaching at a California tennis club he founded with Kramer, one of the greatest players of the 1940s and 1950s. Mr. Braden opened his own tennis academy in 1971.
His first marriage, to Joan Seabridge Braden, ended in divorce. Their daughter, Kelly Braden, died in 2002.
Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Melody Watts Braden of Trabuco Canyon; a daughter from his first marriage, Kory Hittelman of Lake Forest, Calif.; three stepchildren he helped raise; a brother; a sister; and six granddaughters.
Mr. Braden later ran a skiing school in Colorado and made instructional videos on a variety of other sports, from fencing to badminton to volleyball. He believed the fundamentals of any sport could be perfected by continuous repetition.
He ruefully noted that some tennis players would do anything to improve their game, it seemed, except practice. He was particularly amused by a debate in the 1970s and 1980s, when wooden rackets were being replaced by metal.
“People will ask: metal or wood? Who cares?” he said. “The real trouble is the toad at the end of the grip.”