Originally Published: December 2, 2014 6 a.m.
Bill Bruns may not be as well known as Vic Braden (at least in tennis circles), but he certainly made his mark and helped Braden make his by being his wing-man in co-authoring five tennis books that changed the way tennis was taught after their initial meeting in 1973.
I've always wanted to meet the man who helped Vic write most of the books that represent his body of work as a tennis instructor and at his (Braden's) celebration of life a week ago at the "Jack Kramer Club" I finally got that chance. Bill, like Vic, was very open to help this journalist write a column that most will find interesting - a behind the scenes view of what took place between the two and their success as a team.
Their collaboration was a bit like "Lassie and Jeff" in that one really needed the other - a match made in heaven for all the tennis players in the world to benefit from.
It seems to get ahead in this life and to do the things normal people shy away from you have to overcome your fear of putting yourself out there. Both of these gentlemen were and are way ahead of the game in that regard and have accomplished much because of that attitude. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Q: Please tell us a little about your work background and how you got involved with writing the book "Tennis for the Future."
A: I always wanted to be a newspaperman, from the time I began covering high school sports for our weekly newspaper, the Encinitas Coast-Dispatch, in northern San Diego County. In college, at the University of Redlands, I was editor of the school paper and I also became interested in tennis: my first roommate was on the tennis team, and Redlands had one of the country's strongest small-college programs.
After I earned my master's in journalism at UCLA in 1965 (in the Arthur Ashe era), I turned down a sports-writing job at the San Diego Union and elected to go to work with LIFE magazine, first as a reporter in Los Angeles and New York, then as the sports editor (1970-1972).
One of my early bylined stories was a feature on Billie Jean King after she won her second Wimbledon singles title in 1967. I loved working for LIFE, but that all came to an end in December 1972 when the magazine ceased publishing as a weekly, shortly after my wife and I had moved out here to work in the Los Angeles bureau.
Suddenly I had to make a living as a freelance writer. I suggested to do a story about sports psychologists to Human Behavior magazine and somebody in the LIFE office told me I should contact Vic Braden, who had started his tennis college at Rancho Bernardo (in San Diego County) in 1971 and had a degree in psychology. I drove down in early 1973, met Vic and his new wife, Melody, and then sat in on his classroom overview of the game of tennis. He was so insightful and so funny, I knew instantly I had to write an article just about him. At the end of the day, after he demonstrated the forehand, backhand and serve out on the court, and again had all of us laughing at his one-liners, I sat down and interviewed Vic for over an hour. He was so articulate and had already lived such an interesting life in the tennis world that I asked him: "Are you working on a book with anybody?" He said, "Writers come through the college all the time and they all tell me, 'You should write a book,' but I never hear from them again. I said, "If I get a book contract, will you do the book with me?"
He agreed, so after completing the article for Human Behavior, I returned to the tennis college, tape recorded all of Vic's weekend lectures, and returned home to begin writing a proposal for what became "Tennis for the Future."
Q: You were a magazine writer, Vic was relatively unknown around the country, but you ended up with a major publisher, Little, Brown. How did that come about?
A: Actually, I had co-authored two books while at LIFE, and Little, Brown was owned by Time, Inc., so when the magazine folded, I was encouraged to send book proposals to Little, Brown. Fortunately, our proposal ended up with an editor who loved tennis and who knew that Vic would be great at promoting the book around the country.
Q: The "tennis boom" of the 70's was just taking off when you began working with Vic. He was really a busy man, about to build his permanent tennis college at Coto de Caza. How hard was it pull this book project off, how long did it take from beginning to end and what were the ups and downs bringing it all together?
A: We signed our contract in late 1973 and the book came out in 1977. But as anybody who ever worked with Vic would confirm, projects with him took time. He was always an incredibly busy man with numerous interests he wanted to pursue in the world of tennis - research, filming, psychology, tennis commentary, instructional videos. And as he became increasingly prominent, he began traveling here and abroad, and "important" people were always coming through the tennis college who wanted to visit with Vic.
So I did the best I could to gather my material for the 11 chapters in the book, and when I had one chapter completed, I would try hard to get Vic to sit down and read it. Carving out this quiet time was an incredible challenge, and as Vic read, he would also think of something new to add to almost every paragraph, so I would go home, type up my tape-recorded material, and rewrite the chapter. Tedious work that stretched over three years, back and forth - with several detours for both of us (I wrote a book with the prominent sports psychologist Tom Tutko, "Winning Is Everything and Other American Myths").
Later, we had to spend endless hours getting all the photographs taken and approved by Vic. But in the end, we had a much richer, thorough book - he definitive guide to playing this game correctly. The Wall Street Journal reviewer called it "The best tennis book ever written."
Q: The book has 272 pages of easy reading, great illustrations, Vic's famous humor and proven methods of learning the game of tennis. Did you think this book would be as successful as it became and hold the test of time?
A: I knew we had a good book - it read the way Vic talks and it organized everything into one coherent package. But now it needed good reviews and Vic's ability to go out and promote. We knew we were on the right track when the Wall Street Journal reviewer called it "The best tennis book every written," and TIME called it "the Wimbledon of tennis instructionals." Then came our best break: the PBS station in Boston elected to turn the book into a 12-week series - Sunday nights at 8 p.m. - with Vic as the on-court host. Pretty soon our book editor was calling us every few weeks to say, "We're going back to press for another 10,000 copies!"
The hardback version eventually sold more than 100,000 copies, as did the trade paperback edition, and we sold thousands of books in Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea. Of course, we didn't always receive money for these books. When Vic traveled in China, one coach told him, "Your book is very popular in our country." We had never sold the Chinese rights; a publisher there simply did his own translation and kept all the proceeds.
Q: Was Braden easy to work with outside the public eye?
A: Many, many times - in order to get the book finished - I had to lean hard on Vic to give me time to go over the manuscript. He would be exhausted from his day at the college, or jet-lagged from his latest trip, but once we got focused on the task at hand, his energy would rise and his humor, his quick wit, would always surface. He would bring in one of his familiar stories or one-liners to illustrate a point, and I would still always laugh. He also loved hearing an amusing story from people about their experiences playing the game and would sometimes work that story into his classroom spiel.
Q: You continued to write books with Vic over the next 20 years, how did that work out?
A: After "Tennis for the Future," we had the clout to propose a second book on another subject close to Vic's heart: kids and tennis. The result, in 1980, was "Teaching Children Tennis the Vic Braden Way," and it really can still serve as a definitive guide to teaching the game of tennis to anybody. This book captures Vic's wonderful, humanistic 'Laugh and Win' philosophy, and he was always proud of what we wrote. Then we produced "Quick Fixes" in 1988 and "Laugh and Win at Doubles" in 1996.
Q: 23 years after "Tennis for the Future" was written, you updated it with "Tennis 2000." How was it received and what changes were made from the original?
A: Over the years, Vic refined a few of his teaching points to reflect what he was learning from his research via high-speed filming of the forehand, backhand and serve. He wanted to incorporate this knowledge back into his original book, and Little, Brown was willing to do so, even though tennis was no longer the "hot" recreational sport. Their instincts were right; the book earned its advance, but never went back to press.
Q: Many people call these two books the "bibles for learning tennis." Looking back, do you think you could collaborate with anyone else and do it better than what you've done already?
A: Not a chance. I read through various other tennis instructionals, back when we first started our books, and over the subsequent decades, and Vic remains the unrivaled tennis instructor with his combination of lifelong experience in the game, stroke expertise, playing tactics, good humor, and insight into the human being holding the racket. There is just never going to be another Vic Braden. My only regret is that he didn't switch over to golf his final 10 or 15 years, so that we could have made some good money with "Golf for the Future."
Q: Probably the best selling instructional tennis book of all time was "The Inner Game of Tennis" by Tim Gallwey. Did you ever read that book and if so, why do you think it was so successful?
A: I read it but then tried to forget it, because I wanted Vic's book to represent Vic's unique approach to the game, in his own words, not caged from other books. Gallwey's book succeeded because it struck the right cord at the right time, just as the tennis book was taking off, and it offered an easy promise to improving one's game: just think better out on the court, and don't worry about your strokes. Vic's approach was always based on nitty-gritty stroke production, combined with smart thinking. To improve, he said, you have to begin by working on your strokes.
Q: Where do you live today, are you working on any special projects and does the game of tennis still interest you?
A: After freelancing for 18 years and spending three years as Hollywood bureau chief for TV Guide, I went to work as editor of the Palisadian-Post, the weekly paper here in Pacific Palisades, where I have lived with my wife, Pam, since 1972. I retired last November and I've since been staying busy with various writing and editing projects.
I always look back with fondness and appreciation at having the opportunity to work with Vic on his books and numerous articles for Tennis magazine. Many wonderful obituaries were written about him this year, but they tended to overlook the lasting legacy he left with his writing.
Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 40 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or firstname.lastname@example.org.