American tennis player
Bill Tilden has been called the greatest men's single players of all time, a player's player whose cannon of a serve, psychological know-how, paralyzing drop shot, and canny backcourt play transformed the game of tennis. Tilden's dazzling eighteen-year career as an amateur took him to three Wimbledon titles and seven U.S. singles championships. Dominating the game from 1920
to 1926 and capturing 13 successive Davis Cup singles matches against the top players in the world, Tilden became the first celebrity tennis player, every bit as well-known as baseball's Babe Ruth or boxing's Jack Dempsey . Unlike modern players who are past their prime by their late 20s, Tilden had a career that spanned decades. After retiring from amateur tennis in 1930, he went on to participate in the fledgling professional tour, helping to establish the legitimacy of for-pay tennis. He played into his fifties, winning his last title—the Pro doubles—in 1945. In addition to his performance on the court, Tilden also penned over a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, on tennis, and was an aspiring actor. However, the success he found in his professional life was not duplicated in his private life. A homosexual in a time when such an orientation was kept firmly in the closet, Tilden was twice convicted of having sex with minors and died at the age of 60, penniless and alone, scrounging money from friends to buy racquets and balls to give lessons or to drive to the next professional exhibition match.
Born Into Privilege
William Tatem Tilden, Jr., was born on February 10, 1893, at the family mansion, Overleigh, in the wealthy Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The home, a Tudor-like structure on McKean Street, was symbolic in two regards: it demonstrated the Tilden wealth and lineage, and its location, less than three football fields distant from the gates of the local tennis club, the German-town Cricket Club, presaged baby William Jr.'s future field of endeavor. Bill Tilden was born into a family with deep Anglo-Saxon roots. His father's family came from Kent, England, of a long and distinguished British line whose ancestors included, among others, in-laws to the family of William the Conqueror and a Tilden who helped finance the Mayflower. The first Tilden came to the colonies in 1634, accompanied by seven servants. From that beginning on the American continent, the Tildens spread north to Canada, where subsequent generations established that country's largest rental car company, to New York, where one of the offspring, Samuel Tilden, lost the presidential election in 1876, and to Delaware and Maryland. Bill Tilden's father was a result of this southern line of the Tilden clan. He moved to Philadelphia in 1855 where he found work with the woolen firm of David Hey, married the boss's daughter, Selina Hey, and set about becoming partner in the wool business and a wealthy man.
Before Bill Tilden's birth in 1893, William Sr. and his wife Selina had three children in rapid succession. The family prospered and became members of the best social and athletic clubs. However, in 1884, tragedy struck. The diphtheria epidemic of that year did not distinguish between the poor and the wealthy. Within two weeks in late November and early December all three children had died of the disease, and that sad event changed Selina forever. When more children came, she would dote on them and try to protect them from every germ and danger in the world. "Bill Tilden was not to be born for another nine years," wrote Frank Deford, in a Sports Illustrated profile of the great tennis player. "But for these sad events of 1884, he almost surely would not have been born at all. And because of them, he was greatly affected. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of the way Bill Tilden was to be was determined years before his birth." A brother was born six years before Bill Tilden, but with the birth of this fifth child, the mother decided she would shelter him from the world. He thus was schooled at home in a mansion that included eight apartments and a large domestic staff, and was vastly spoiled. Named after his father, he bore the Jr. on his name and was called Junior or June, a name he grew to resent and ultimately changed. The father left the rearing of this last child to the mother, who decided early on that Tilden was a sickly child and had to be kept safe. He grew up at his mother's side, learning to love music as he sat by her at the piano, and learning to speak "proper" English from her, one that contained few American slang expressions.
Tilden, however, found another early outlet for his self-expression. At the age of five, while summering at the family vacation home at the Onteora Club in the Catskills, he first picked up a tennis racquet and began hitting balls against the back of the house. Tennis professionals who taught the game were a rarity at this time, but his older brother also played, and Tilden styled much of his game after him. At the age of eight he won his first singles trophy, defeating all comers at the 15-and-under Boys championships at the Onteora Club. He continued his tennis playing at the Germantown Cricket Club—scene of some of his most memorable matches in later years—just steps from his home in Philadelphia. In 1908 Tilden's life was turned upside down when his mother was taken ill with a kidney disease and he was sent to live with an aunt and cousin on his mother's side in a more modest dwelling nearby. He would maintain this room for the entire time he lived in Philadelphia. Away from Overleigh, he was enrolled in the prestigious Germantown Academy, graduating in 1910.
|1893||Born February 10, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to William Tatem Sr. and Selina Hey Tilden|
|1898||First picks up a tennis racquet, copying serve and volley style of his brother|
|1901||Wins first singles title in 15-and-under tournament|
|1908||Upon illness of his mother, is sent to live with his aunt|
|1910||Graduates from Germantown Academy in Philadelphia and enters the University of Pennsylvania|
|1913||Coaches Germantown Academy tennis team and begins serious study of lawn tennis|
|1913||Wins first U.S. mixed doubles title, with Mary Kendall Browne|
|1915||Both father and brother die and Tilden leaves college to work as a reporter and build a tennis career|
|1916||Loses first U.S. singles championship|
|1917||Enlists in U.S. Army, serving in Pennsylvania|
|1918||Discharged from the army, he wins 11 of 15 singles tournaments and maintains a number two ranking|
|1919||Spends almost a year developing a driving backhand|
|1921||Publishes book of instruction, The Art of Lawn Tennis|
|1922||Top joint of right middle finger is amputated|
|1924||Challenges U.S. Lawn Tennis Association ban on amateur players writing about tennis|
|1925||Publishes Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, considered a classic in tennis technique|
|1926||Knee injury leads to his first loss in a match in six years|
|1928||USLTA suspends Tilden for his tennis writing|
|1930||Ends amateur career|
|1930||Signs movie contract with MGM|
|1930||Publishes novel, Glory's Net,|
|1931||Enters professional playing career with Tilden Tennis Tour|
|1934||Tours with tennis great Ellsworth Vines|
|1937||Tours with Fred Perry|
|1939||Moves from Philadelphia and his aunt's house to Los Angeles, California|
|1941-45||Plays benefit tournaments to support the war effort|
|1946||Arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor for sexually molesting a 14-year-old boy and sentenced to a year in prison|
|1948||Again convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and sentenced to a second prison term|
|1950||Publishes How to Play Better Tennis, the distillation of his tennis wisdom|
|1950||Named greatest player of 1900-1950 by Associated Press poll|
|1953||Dies of a heart attack in Los Angeles|
|1959||Inducted posthumously into the Tennis Hall of Fame|
|1969||Voted greatest male player of all time by panel of international tennis journalists|
Despite his early tennis trophy, there was little about Tilden's game as a youngster to suggest that he would be the greatest player of the century. He played on the Academy team as well as on the University of Pennsylvania team when he entered that institution in 1910, but was a star on neither. Then in 1911 his mother died and Tilden, losing this anchor, foundered for a time. He stayed in college, but was never a brilliant student in the best of times. He also continued to play tennis, winning the U.S. mixed doubles in 1913 and 1914. When his father and then his brother died in quick succession in 1915, Tilden's life utterly changed. He left the university, took a reporting job for the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, and determined to devote his life to his one enduring passion: tennis.
A Self-Taught Genius
Tilden, at over six feet tall, trim with long legs and wide shoulders, had the perfect tennis build. He moved quickly and gracefully, had a powerful forehand, a strong serve, and a slicing backhand. Tilden was also able to mix it up on the court, slicing and dicing, and adapting his play to that of his opponents. He was ranked for the first time in 1915, in the top 70. By the summer of 1916 he had begun playing major tournaments, accepted at Forest Hills for the U.S. singles, but losing in straight sets in his first round. He began to concentrate on the game of tennis not only on the court, but off, as well, examining the game from the standpoint of geometry and physics, figuring out angles and lines of direction. He also became a student of the psychological aspects of the game, determining that it must be part of his strategy to get into the head of his opponent and disrupt that person's own game plan. Such studies were in part due to an unpaid position he took as tennis coach to his former alma mater, the Germantown Academy. Tilden's ranking in the amateur standings steadily rose, elevated to the top twenty by the end of 1916.
With the advent of U.S. involvement in the First World War in 1917, Tilden joined the Army Medical Corps, but was stationed in Pittsburgh, where his commanding officer, a tennis enthusiast, decreed that the young man should continue to play as many tournaments as possible. His time in the military actually saw a boost in his game as a result of this time spent playing. In 1918, out of the Army, Tilden won his first major singles title, the U.S. Clay Court, and his first major doubles at the National Doubles, but lost in the finals at Forest Hills. The following year Tilden again lost in the finals of the U.S. singles at Forest Hills, this time to Bill Johnston, who became his Davis Cup teammate and rival for much of the next decade. He decided that something radical had to be done with his game or else he would remain forever a talented player who could just not break through to number one.
In 1919 Tilden, at age 26, decided to overhaul his game, in particular his backhand. He knew that he needed more than a defensive slice, and he spent the greater part of the fall and winter of 1919 and 1920 developing a backhand drive, a flat, powerful shot that could equal his forehand. In the era before California and Florida tennis camps, he needed to find an available playing surface for the winter months, and thus took a job for an insurance company in Providence, Rhode Island, where part of his duties were tutoring the son of the local manager, thus gaining the use of that man's indoor court. He worked daily on his stroke production until he felt confident with his new backhand. By the late spring of 1920 he was ready. Chosen for the Davis Cup team as a replacement player, he sailed for England, where first he would play the tournament at Wimbledon. To the surprise of everyone there, Tilden won Wimbledon and even won over the British crowds with his showmanship on court. He was the first American to win this title in several decades and his victory in England thrust him into the first rank of Davis Cup players. He and Johnston were chosen to play both singles and doubles, beating the English and the French teams later that summer without losing a match.
Awards and Accomplishments
|Davis Cup: (as player) 1920-30, won 25 singles and 9 doubles.|
|Tilden retired as an amateur in 1930 with a career record of 907 wins, 62 losses, winning 138 of 192 tournaments.|
|1913||U.S. mixed doubles|
|1914||U.S. mixed doubles|
|1918||U.S. doubles; U.S. Clay Court Singles|
|1919||U.S. Indoor doubles|
|1920||Wimbledon singles; U.S. singles; U.S. Indoor singles; U.S. doubles; U.S. Indoor doubles|
|1921||Wimbledon singles; U.S. singles; U.S. doubles; U.S. Indoor mixed doubles|
|1922||U.S. singles; U.S. doubles; U.S. mixed doubles; U.S. Clay Court singles; U.S. Indoor mixed doubles|
|1923||U.S. singles; U.S. doubles; U.S. mixed doubles; U.S. Clay Court singles|
|1924||U.S. singles; U.S. Indoor mixed doubles; U.S. Clay Court singles|
|1925||U.S. singles; U.S. Clay Court singles|
|1926||U.S. Indoor doubles; U.S. Clay Court Singles|
|1927||Wimbledon doubles; U.S. doubles; U.S. Clay Court singles|
|1929||U.S. singles; U.S. Indoor doubles|
|1930||Wimbledon singles; French mixed doubles|
|1932||Pro singles; Pro doubles|
Back in America, Tilden faced Johnston again in the finals at Forest Hills, a match that is generally considered to be one of the greatest in the history of that tournament. After splitting the first two sets 6-1 each, Tilden took the third at 7-5 and then Johnston stormed back to take the fourth 7-5. Tilden pulled out all the stops with his new backhand, mixing it up with both defensive slices and driving flat shots from both sides. He also confused Johnston with his serve, hitting not only his trademark cannonball, but also high kicking serves and sliders, serving up 20 aces overall. With the match even, the drama was heightened even more by the crash of an airplane just outside the grounds. The players continued the game, and Tilden won the final set 6-3, securing for him the number one position in the world, a ranking he would maintain for the next six years. He and Johnston were then chosen to lead the Davis Cup team to New Zealand where they were victorious, bringing the cup back to America for the next seven years. The Tilden era in tennis had begun.
The Tilden Age
Tilden continued his dominance in world tennis in 1921, successfully defending his Wimbledon and U.S. singles titles. At Wimbledon that year he beat a South African newcomer, Brian "Babe" Norton, in what many viewers have termed the strangest match in Wimbledon history. Exhausted from previous play and suffering from boils, Tilden had to get out of his sickbed for the Norton match. During the course of play, Tilden employed his drop shot, a stroke he had not invented but had perfected and was the first to use in major competitions. The British crowd started booing him, finding the shot unsportsmanlike. Tilden's opponent, Norton, infatuated with the great Tilden, became as angry with the crowd as Tilden did. Down two sets, it looked as though Tilden would not regain his title. But suddenly he came back, or as some observers mention, Norton began to throw points his way. Later that summer, in the U.S. singles championship, Tilden won the U.S. singles title on his home turf, at the Germantown Cricket Club where he had played as a youngster, as a new stadium was being built at Forest Hills. Tilden attracted record crowds of 12,000 people to see him demolish his opponents. In 1922, Tilden again faced Johnston in the finals of the U.S. singles. As each had won the title twice by this time, this match determined who would be able to keep the trophy permanently. Played again at Germantown in front of overflow crowds, the match became a trademark Tilden affair. Down two sets, Tilden came roaring back to with the match in the final three sets. He then took the trophy to his Auntie Hey's house on nearby Hansbury Street where he placed it in a prominent position in the living room. Shortly thereafter, Tilden was playing an exhibition match in New Jersey when he scratched the middle finger of his right hand on some chicken wire that was part of the backstop. Gangrene set in and he almost lost the entire finger. Finally amputated above the second joint, the finger was a setback for Tilden, but he adjusted his grip and in time was able to compensate for it, playing better than ever.
Tilden maintained his number one position throughout the first half of the 1920s, winning the U.S. singles titles six years in a row and leading his Davis Cup teams in an unprecedented run against worldwide challengers. It was not only his stroke production that made Tilden such a strong competitor, but also his psychological read on the game. As early as 1920, while sitting in his London hotel room in preparation for that year's Wimbledon, he began putting his thoughts on technique down on paper in the book The Art of Lawn Tennis. Another classic title from Tilden is Match Play and the Spin of the Ball in which he not only describes his amazing ball spin technique, but also informs readers of the importance of impressing one's personality on the opponent. Tilden was always the first to throw his racquet down before the match to decide who would begin serving, and always the first to call out to see if the opponent was ready to begin play. With such tactics he subtly put himself in charge of play even before it had begun. A gentleman on the court, Tilden was also a master of gamesmanship.
Related Biography: Tennis Player Bill Johnston
Known as "Big Bill" and "Little Bill," Tilden and Johnston were the two greatest stars in American men's tennis during the 1920s. Together the terror twins were able to successively defeat the French, Australians, British, and Japanese in Davis Cup matches from 1920 to 1926, creating a sevenyear stretch of American dominance in those competitions. But the two were also rivals. It has been said that it was Bill Johnston's bad luck that he was playing during the reign of Tilden, or else he would have accumulated more national championships. As it was, he was able to win the U.S. singles title twice, in 1915 and again in 1919. It was Tilden's defeat in that 1919 match that convinced "Big Bill" that he needed more firepower on his backhand side. Johnston was runner-up to the title six times; in five of those competitions he lost to Tilden—five inches taller than him—in the final.
Johnston was born in San Francisco, California, on November 2, 1894. Unlike Tilden, he developed his tennis skills and techniques on the public courts of that city. He was an aggressive player, with a gritty competitive attitude. Johnston developed an angled overhead smash that was the despair of many opponents. He was also known for his western grip and the resulting topspin forehand drive, turning such a shot into one of the most effective in tennis history. He would take the ball shoulder height and was one of the first to leap off the ground on his follow-through.
Johnston was ranked in the World Top Ten for eight straight years from 1919 until his health began to fail in 1927. In the U.S. he was in the top ten 12 times from 1913. In addition to his two U.S. singles titles, he also won Wimbledon in 1923, and won 11 of 14 Davis Cup matches in seven challenge rounds. He retired from tennis after the 1927 season, as he had never regained his health from the time he served in the Navy in World War I. Johnston died on May 1, 1946, and was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1958.
As Tilden's reputation grew, more and more fans were attracted to the unlikely sport of lawn tennis in America, formerly thought of as a "sissy" sport. Ironically, it was Tilden, an admitted but also very private homosexual, who popularized the sport in this country. As his fame grew, his other aspirations came to the fore. Always a frustrated actor, he began to spend his family fortune on Broadway plays featuring him in the lead, one time even playing Dracula. Such shows were generally failures and a drain on his resources and time. He lived high, spending money easily, and continued to write books and articles. Such activities got him in trouble with the United States Lawn Tennis Association in 1924. His threatened resignation from the Davis Cup team in protest forced the USLTA to reconsider its new rules banning players from writing about the sport. More arguments ensued between Tilden and the USLTA in 1928 when he was suspended from play for his writing. The intercession of powerful political friends in the United States and in France allowed him to play Davis Cup that year, but he was barred from the Forest Hills championships.
End of an Era
Tilden continued his string of victories until the fateful year of 1926 when, in a match with the Frenchman Rene Lacoste, part of the famed French Musketeers, he injured the cartilage in his knee and lost his first Davis Cup match. Later that summer he was defeated in the quarterfinals at Forest Hills by Henri Cochet, another member of the French Musketeers who had been gunning for him for years. The following year he was determined to become number one again, but lost a heartbreaking match at the French Championships at St. Cloud to Lacoste 11-9 in the fifth set, and again lost to Cochet in a world-famous semifinal at Wimbledon after being up two sets and 5-1 in the third. The power balance had shifted to the French, and though Tilden continued to play world class tennis, he would not win another major until his 1929 victory at Forest Hills and his final 1930 win at Wimbledon. He was 37 when he took the Wimbledon title for the third time, the second oldest man to win that title.
Tilden retired from amateur tennis in 1930, and immediately went on the new professional circuit, touring around the country with other tennis stars such as Karel Kozeluh, Vinnie Richards, Ellsworth Vines, and Fred Perry. In 1939 he finally moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where he made friends with movie folk including Charlie Chaplin and Joseph Cotton, both of whom allowed Tilden to use their courts to teach. By this time he was already experiencing money problems, and was forced to give lessons and continue the relentless tour schedule just to make ends meet. During World War II he played exhibition matches to raise money for the war effort, and following the war, he was instrumental in forming the Professional Tennis Players Association.
In addition to his money problems, Tilden was increasingly losing control over his proclivity for young boys. During his pro career such an orientation had been well hidden, even though many of the players knew that he would travel with a favorite ball boy. In 1946 he was arrested on a morals charge for engaging in sexual activities with a 14-year-old, and served eight months at a minimum security prison north of Los Angeles. Out of prison, most of his friends had abandoned him. In 1948 he was again arrested, and served another ten months in prison. Thereafter, he barely scraped by, living on what he could make on his occasional lessons or on a professional tour. On June 5, 1953, preparing to leave for a tournament in Cleveland, Ohio, Bill Tilden died of a heart attack in his small Hollywood apartment.
Bill Tilden changed the sport of tennis forever. Not only did he revolutionize the game with his emphasis on variety of stroke production, but also with his reliance on a sort of inner tennis, in which psychology was an acknowledged on-court partner. "No man ever bestrode sports as Tilden did during [1920 to 1930]," wrote Deford in Sports Illustrated. "It was not just that he could not be beaten, it was as if he had invented the game." And as Bud Collins noted in Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis, "If a player's value is measured by the dominance and influence he exercises over a sport, then William Tatem 'Big Bill' Tilden II could be considered the greatest player in the history of tennis."
Our Greatest Athlete
Tilden was sixty when he died and it is only about a year since he played in the professional championship, where he defeated Wayne Sabin and played a close match with Frank Kovacs. This represents a period of thirty-five years of continuous championship play in a game as strenuous as any. And at fifty-nine Tilden still was the world's finest tennis player over the short span of one set….
The usual thing is to say that Tilden belonged to the so-called Golden Age of sport, the age of Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, the Four Horsemen and Babe Ruth, that he was one of the great ones. Well, there above is the evidence to support the contention that Tilden was our greatest athlete in any sport….
Great as he was as a player, it is impossible to consider Tilden out-side the rich soil of his nature. He was arrogant, quarrelsome, unreasonable; very hard to get along with and all his life an unhappy man. It is not generally known that Tilden was a wealthy man and that he ran through at least two substantial family fortunes to die with ten dollars in his pocket. And he probably made more money out of tennis than even the modern plutocrats of the professional exhibition racket. Throughout his life he lived on a scale befitting an Indian Prince. Through the wonderful era of the 1920s he spent with a lavish hand….
Tilden longed beyond all else to be a great actor, and he dropped a small fortune producing plays with him as the star, plays that failed miserably. For Tilden, who was indisputably a great actor on the tennis court—who ever can forget those majestic entrances and exits at Forest Hills and Wimbledon?—was a tragic figure behind the footlights….
Tilden, unquestionably, was one of the great personalities of our time. He died alone, in poverty. But even those who defeated him on the courts could never hope to be his equal. Probably we shall never see his like again.
Source: Al Laney, The Fireside Book of Tennis, edited by Allison Danzig and Peter Schwed, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
If his off-court behavior was questionable, it was also pitiable. But his contributions to the game of tennis can not be discounted because of such personal indiscretions. Almost single-handedly he transformed the game of tennis from one that was considered an effete pastime, to a national obsession that filled stadiums and brought to the game an entire new generation not only of spectators, but also of players anxious to best Tilden and his records. Instrumental in transforming the elitist amateur game of tennis into the modern professional, open-era game, Tilden will be long remembered as one of the greats of the sport. As tennis writer Allison Danzig wrote in The Fireside Book of Tennis, Tilden "was the master of his time and for all time."
SELECTED WRITINGS BY TILDEN:
The Art of Lawn Tennis, Doran Company, 1921.
It's All in the Game, and Other Tennis Tales, Doubleday, Page and Company, 1922.
Better Tennis for the Club Player, American Sports Publishing Company, 1923.
Singles and Doubles, Doran Company, 1923.
The Common Sense of Tennis, Simon & Schuster, 1924.
The Phantom Drive, 1924.
The Pinch Quitter, 1924.
The Expert, American Sports Publishing Company, 1925.
Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, American Lawn Tennis, 1925.
Tennis for the Junior Player, the Club Player, the Expert, American Sports Publishing Company, 1926.
Me—The Handicap, 1929.
Glory's Net, Methuen, 1930.
Aces, Places and Faults, Hale, 1938.
My Story, a Champion's Memoirs, Hellman, Williams, 1948.
How to Play Better Tennis, Simon & Schuster, 1950.
Baltzell, E. Digby. Sporting Gentlemen: Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar. New York: Free Press, 1995.
Bartlett, Michael and Bob Gillen, editors. The Tennis Book. New York: Arbor House, 1981.
Christopher, Andre. Top Ten Men's Tennis Players. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1998.
Collins, Bud and Zander Hollander, editors. Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis. Detroit: Gale, 1994.
Cummings, Parke. American Tennis: The Story of a Game and Its People. Boston: Little, Brown, 1957.
Danzig, Allison and Peter Schwed, editors. The Fireside Book of Tennis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Deford, Frank. Big Bill Tilden: The Triumph and the Tragedies. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.
Flink, Steve. The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century. Danbury, CT: Rutledge Books, 1999.
Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Phillips, Caryl, editor. The Right Set: A Tennis Anthology. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
Vecchione, Joseph J. The New York Times Book of Sports Legends. New York: Times Books, 1991.
Deford, Frank. "Hero with a Tragic Flaw." Sports Illustrated (January 13, 1975): 51.
Deford, Frank, "Hero with a Tragic Flaw: Part 2." Sports Illustrated (January 20, 1975): 31.
Heldman, Julius D. "Styles of the Great, Bill Tilden." World Tennis (April, 1980): 12-14.
Obituary. New York Times (June 6, 1953).
Parrish, K. "The Champ and the Tramp." World Tennis (February, 1990): 96.
"Bill Johnston, Class of 1958." International Tennis Hall of Fame. http://www.tennisfame.org/ (September 22, 2002).
"Bill Tilden, Class of 1959." International Tennis Hall of Fame. http://www.tennisfame.org/ (September 17, 2002).
Sketch by J. Sydney Jones
Bill Tilden (1893-1953), known as "Big Bill" and "Gentleman Bill," was the first American tennis player to compete at Wimbledon—and the first American winner. During the 1920s, he was undefeated for seven years. His book The Art of Tennis is still regarded as a classic in the game. "In the 1920s and 1930s," wrote Kim Shanley on tennisone.com, "Bill Tilden was to tennis what Babe Ruth was to baseball."
William Tatem Tilden Jr. was born on February 10, 1893, in Philadelphia, the son of wealthy parents. His childhood was marked by tragedy. Before he was born, three older siblings died within two weeks of each other in a diphtheria epidemic, in 1884. His parents had two more children: Tilden and his brother Herbert. When Tilden was 15, his mother contracted Bright's disease and was confined to a wheelchair. His father, who was considering a campaign for mayor of Philadelphia, was rarely home. When Tilden was 18, his mother died; three years later his father died from a kidney infection; a few months later his beloved brother Herbert died of pneumonia. At age 22, Tilden was the only survivor of a once-large family.
After the deaths, Tilden left the University of Pennsylvania and went to live with his mother's sister, Betsy Hey, and her niece, Selina. He was encouraged to resume playing tennis by Selina, who considered the game to be a form of therapy for his grief. Tilden did go back to the game and, within five years, was a world-ranked player. During his amateur period, he won 138 of 192 tournaments, and his match record was 907-62. In 1920, at the age of 27, Tilden was the first American to win a tournament at Wimbledon, in England.
In the 1920s, Tilden dominated the sport of tennis, winning seven U.S. championships, the equivalent to today's U.S. Open. He was a finalist at the U.S. Open ten times, and also won five men's doubles and four mixed doubles there. Tilden won at Wimbledon two more times, in 1921 and 1930. In addition, he won 13 straight singles matches in the Davis Cup from 1920 until 1926. In 1925, Tilden won 57 games in a row—a feat that biographer Frank Deford wrote was "one of those rare, unbelievable athletic feats—like Johnny Unitas throwing touchdown passes in 47 straight games or Joe DiMaggio hitting safety in 56 games in a row—that simply cannot be exceeded in a reasonable universe no matter how long and loud we intone that records are made to be broken."
A Cerebral Player and a Flamboyant Performer
Tilden was known for his style, grace, and commanding manner, as well as for his cannonball serve, which was once clocked at 151 miles per hour. In addition to his grace and power, he was also famous for his cerebral approach to the game. Unlike many other sports champions, who can't explain how they do what they do or why they excel, Tilden loved to think and write about the physical, emotional, and mental traits of a champion. According to Shanley, Tilden wrote: "The game is a science and an art. It can reach its highest expression only if a player is willing to study and practice in an attempt to master the game in all its varied facets." Tilden also told tennis students that it would take them 20 lessons before they could even begin to play and six months of lessons before they would even begin to have fun playing. "Anyone who promises quicker results is either an optimist, a miracle worker, or a liar," he wrote. He believed that, because of its technical challenges, tennis is by its very nature a very difficult sport to play. "In the range of sporting activities," he wrote, "successfully hitting a tennis ball back over the net and into the prescribed area on the other side (given the whole range of variables, including ball speed and spin, body movement, and wind and sun) is an inherently difficult task." And, he wrote, "Remember that in first-class tournament tennis, 70 percent of all points end in error, a net or an out, and only 30 percent end in winning placements or service aces."
Tilden was a strategist, advising players, "The primary object in match tennis is to break up the other man's game. The first thought that you should have, when you step onto a court for a match, is 'What are my opponent's weaknesses? Where will he miss next?"' He also believed in appreciating the past, writing in his 1923 book How to Play Better Tennis, "There are some very valuable things of the past that have been lost in the wild scramble for speed and power. These should be recovered and brought back into the repertoire of the modern player. The champion of today owes his game to the champions of yesterday, just as he will add his bit to the champion of tomorrow." In addition, he wrote, "The wise student should learn all he can about the styles and methods of the great players of the past, every bit as much as he does of the players of the present."
Tilden knew his opponents well, and often toyed with them, playing to the crowds. In Famous Tennis Players, Trent Frayne quoted sportswriter Allison Danzig, who wrote, "To win the crowds to his side, he went to lengths that bordered on lunacy. He would allow his opponents to gain so big a lead as to make his own defeat appear inevitable. Then, from this precarious position, he would launch a spectacular comeback that had the crowd cheering him and that invariably ended with an ovation from the stands when he won." Despite these stunts, he made a point of being fair. If an official incorrectly made a call that unfairly favored Tilden, he often deliberately missed his next shot in order to restore fairness to the game. In the Davis Cup, he once allowed Australian, James Anderson, to win a whole set in order to make up for a bad call that had wrongly given Tilden a set point.
In addition to being a flamboyant tennis performer, Tilden also was deeply interested in the theater. When he inherited $30,000, he used the money to produce Dracula, with himself in the title role. The show ran for sixteen weeks, but was a disaster. He also wrote fiction, in addition to his tennis books; Frayne described the books as "droopy novels usually inveighing against the evils of alcohol, which he personally abhorred."
In 1922, Tilden lost part of his finger in an accident. He simply modified his grip and continued to play at the same level he had played at before the accident.
Clashed with Officials
Tilden disliked authority and frequently came into conflict with officials of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). In one famous clash, described by Frayne, Tilden was scheduled to play doubles in the Davis Cup finals of 1927, with Frank T. Hunter as his partner. The team had already won Wimbledon and Forest Hills but, for unknown reasons, on the morning of the match the officials changed their minds and declared that Dick Williams would be his partner. Tilden was annoyed by their high-handed manner. "Splendid," he told them. "I'll be playing bridge in the clubhouse. When you've regained your sanity, come and advise me." Tilden calmly went and played bridge, impervious to the demands, threats, and pleadings of officials; at one point, he asked them to stop interrupting his game. Out on the court, a sellout crowd was noisily demanding to see Tilden play. The officials gave in and Tilden played-after he finished playing his hand. And he won the set, though he lost the Davis Cup for that year.
In 1928, the officials were still annoyed with his attitude. They decreed that he would be suspended from amateur competition and would not be allowed to play in the Davis Cup challenge round between the United States and France. Technically, amateurs were not allowed to make money from their sport, and Tilden was well known for writing articles on tennis for various publications. Although he had been doing this for many years, officials had always ignored it. Now, they suspended him for six months. What they had not considered was the effect of Tilden's fans.
All the seats for the Davis Cup matches in Paris were sold out. When the French heard that Tilden would not be playing in their new Roland Garros Stadium, they sent diplomats to ask Calvin Coolidge, then president of the United States, to allow Tilden to play. The president told the American ambassador in Paris to disregard the U.S. Davis Cup team captain, and to select Tilden for the team. Tilden could be suspended after the match—which he won.
Tragic End to a Great Career
Tilden's fame led him to have many famous friends, particularly movie stars. He moved to Hollywood and coached many of them in tennis, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Tallulah Bankhead. He also became good friend with Charlie Chaplin. Tilden played at Chaplin's tennis parties, where he coached Errol Flynn, Joseph Cotten, Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy, and Olivia deHavilland.
Although Tilden is widely considered to be the greatest tennis player of all time, his life story is also the most tragic. Tilden was gay, in an era when homosexuality was not tolerated. He was arrested, convicted, and put in jail twice for homosexual encounters. When this became public knowledge, he was no longer allowed to enter tennis clubs or to play on the professional circuit. By the end of his life, his former friends had abandoned him. Some of them literally turned their backs when he approached. The officials at Penn removed his name from their alumni files. The Germantown Cricket Club, where he had won many of his Davis Cup matches, removed his pictures from their walls. The same happened at Forest Hills, where to this day there is only one photograph of him on the wall.
Friendless and penniless, Tilden had to pawn his old trophies, and lived in a sparse rented room near Hollywood and Vine. On June 5, 1953, he died of a heart attack in West Hollywood, California. He was alone, and his rackets were found beside his bed, packed and ready to go to the 1953 U.S. Championships.
Although his friends turned their backs on him, his reputation as a tennis player endured. Tilden won the National Sports Writers Association "Most Outstanding Athlete of the Year" award in 1949, with ten times the number of votes of the nearest runner-up.
In The Story of the Davis Cup, Alan Trengrove quotes John Kieran as saying, "Big Bill was more than a monarch. He was a great artist and a great actor. He combed his dark hair with an air. He strode the courts like a confident conqueror. He rebuked the crowds at tournaments and sent critical officials scurrying to cover. He carved up his opponents as a royal chef would carve meat to the king's taste. He had a fine flair for the dramatic; and, with his vast height and reach and boundless zest and energy over a span of years, he was the most striking and commanding figure the game of tennis had ever put on court."
Twenty-three years after Tilden died, writer Frank Deford visited his small, modest tombstone, and according to Frayne, wrote, "It is the only monument of any kind anywhere in the world—at Forest Hills, Wimbledon, Germantown, anywhere—that pays tribute to the greatest tennis player who ever lived."
American Decades, edited by Judith Baughman, Gale Research, 1996.
Deford, Frank, Big Bill Tilden: The Triumph and the Tragedy, Simon and Schuster, 1976.
Potter, David L., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Outdoor Sports, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Trengrove, Alan, The Story of the Davis Cup, Stanley Paul, 1985.
"Big Bill Tilden: A Tennis Strategist," http://www.letsfindout.com/subjects/sports/billtild.html (November 9, 1999).
"Bill Tilden," The Knitting Circle: Sports http://unix.sbu.ac.uk/~stafflag/billtilden.html (November 9, 1999).
"Theories of the Game: Bill Tilden and the Classical Vision," tennisone.com, http://www.tennisone.com/Theories/theories.tilden.p1.html (November 9, 1999). □
Bill Tilden Trials: 1947 & 1949
Bill Tilden Trials: 1947 & 1949
Defendant: William Tatem Tilden 11
Crime Charged: Contributing to the delinquency of a minor
Chief Defense Lawyer: Richard Maddox
Chief Prosecutor: William Ritzi
Judge: A. A. Scott
Place: Los Angeles, California
Dates of Trials: January 16, 1947; February 10, 1949
Sentences: One year in jail each time
SIGNIFICANCE: Bill Tilden was one of the greatest tennis player who ever lived. He consorted with movie stars and kings. But toward the end of his career, he was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. The conviction destroyed him. Apart from the tragedy of a man who climbed the heights and dropped to the depths, both by his own efforts, the case illustrates the folly of not listening to one's lawyer.
It was 1920 at Wimbledon, and the world championship tennis matches were under way. The U.S. team's hopes for a world championship vanished when Little Bill Johnston, a 5′8″ giant killer, was eliminated. That left Big Bill Tilden to meet the champion, Gerald Patterson of Australia. The University of Pennsylvania tennis team had rejected Tilden while he was a student there. He had improved since then, but he was 27, almost over-the-hill for a player in those days. The year before, Johnston had beaten him in straight sets.
In the Tilden-Patterson match, the Aussie started strong. He won the first set 6-2. The players changed sides and Tilden noticed a friend, actress Peggy Wood. He nodded slightly to signal that all was well, then he swept the next three sets. Tilden liked to give the crowd a good show. He had been playing with Patterson as a cat plays with a mouse. The Manchester Guardian's tennis correspondent wrote that, "the Philadelphian made rather an exhibition of his opponent."
After winning the world championship, Tilden utterly dominated amateur tennis until he turned professional in 1931. In 1950, American sportswriters voted him the most outstanding athlete in the first half of the century. He won over the likes of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, and Johnny Weismuller. He received more than twice as many votes as his nearest rival.
An Unlikely Champion
No one who knew Tilden growing up would have picked him as a future super-athlete. He was a sickly child whose mother kept him out of school and tutored him at home. The Tildens had another son, Herbert, six years older. Herbert was a sturdy, handsome and outgoing boy who delighted his handsome, outgoing father. But Tilden Senior left the raising of his skinny younger son strictly to his wife. Linie Tilden constantly lectured little Bill on health, and especially, on the danger of venereal disease. He seldom saw children his own age. As a teenager, he hung around with younger boys and girls. He loved to play big brother, entertaining the other kids with stories and producing plays. He adored his own big brother, Herbert, an intercollegiate doubles champion, who taught him tennis.
In 1911, while young Bill was at the University of Pennsylvania, his mother had a stroke and died. Four years later, both his father and brother died. Bill Tilden sank into a deep depression.
An older cousin told him to get interested in something, anything, or he'd waste his whole life. He became interested in tennis and began to study the game seriously. He studied opponents, too. He pinpointed their weaknesses and worked out strategies to deal with each. He combined this intellectual approach with superb coordination and the stamina of 10 ordinary men. In four years, he was champion of the world.
Tilden had no doubts about how good he was. He was the best, and he knew it. But as his nephew, William Tatem Tilden III, put it, "he never grew up." He was most comfortable with children and young teens. He coached a long succession of young boy proteges. He was a homosexual, but none of his proteges, all heterosexual, said he ever made any advances on them. In his glory years, people who knew Tilden thought he was asexual.
As champion, Tilden struck people as being unusually straitlaced, although given to frequent tantrums. He wrote hokey short stories extolling good sportsmanship and similarly moralistic plays, all of which flopped. He acted, too, in his own plays and those of recognized play-wrights. He adored actors and wanted to be one, but he always overacted. His lifestyle, especially his demeanor on the tennis court, was too dramatic for the stage.
Out of the Closet
Gradually, his fabulous stamina began to ebb. Opponents with less skill could wear him out. Tennis fans eventually said he was "still the best player in the world for one set." As his game faded, his homosexuality came to the fore. He began to solicit boys—but never his proteges—he met on tours. At first he kept his sexual activities tightly in the closet. He cut off contact with his nephew and namesake because the younger man learned of his sexual orientation.
But as he got older and his game fell off, Tilden's homosexuality became more overt. Colleagues recognized it. As his reputation grew, clubs began to bar Tilden. Other players shunned him. He moved to California, where he still had friends among the movie elite. Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, and other stars flocked around him.
On November 23, 1946, two police officers in Beverly Hills saw a car driving erratically. The driver appeared to be an underage boy. An older man had his arm around him. When the officers pulled the car over, the man hurriedly changed places with the boy. The boy's fly was open. The police arrested Bill Tilden.
Tilden was numb from shock. He signed a confession without even looking at it. When he recovered, he asked for a lawyer. He wanted Jerry Giesler, who had achieved fame by defending Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn in suits resulting from their sexual escapades. Giesler wanted no part of him: he defended only heterosexual predators. Tilden finally engaged Richard Maddox, a young former prosecutor.
Maddox had a hard time convincing Tilden that he was in serious trouble. Maddox pointed out that the scandal sheets and rumor mongers would have a field day imagining tennis parties at the Chaplin estate—orgies with the Communist Little Tramp and "In Like" Flynn seducing the little girls while Queer Bill seduced the little boys.
The state's case was weak, the lawyer said. If Tilden repudiated his statement, the only evidence would be the boy's statement. The boy, a precociously dissolute 14-year-old, had been expelled from several schools because of his sexual activities and general delinquency. If Tilden pleaded not guilty, Maddox said, the boy's parents would not want him to testify. And they had said they didn't want Tilden to go to jail.
Tilden refused to plead not guilty. He said he must accept responsibility. "He was hung up on the sportsman thing," Maddox said later.
And Tilden was still convinced that with his celebrity and his famous friends he would get no more than a tongue-lashing and a fine. Dr. J. Paul De River, a psychiatrist who examined Tilden, told the court he was "impulsively weak … passive autistic with egocentric traits… in need of special psychiatric care." He said, "Any jail sentence would of necessity be limited and would not tend to work as a curative measure, and would probably bring … more harm." He concluded, "He is … in some ways quite juvenile.… This man should be regarded as someone who is mentally ill."
De River believed Tilden suffered from "an endocrine dysfunction so often seen during the evolutionary stage of life when the sex curve is on the decline."
Even District Attorney William Ritzi said later, "The poor man was a sick individual. We realized it then, and we realize it now. It's just that society treats it differently today than in those days."
At the sentencing hearing, Tilden compounded his trouble by lying to the judge. He said he had never been involved in a situation like this before. Judge A. A. Scott, like almost everybody in Beverly Hills, knew better. He sentenced Tilden to a year in jail. Tilden was so stunned Maddox had to lift him to his feet.
De River was right. Jail was no cure. Tilden was released after serving seven and a half months. Less than a year and a half later, he was arrested for groping a 16-year-old hitchhiker. He was sentenced to another year, but he got out after about 10 months. Shortly before he was released, American sportswriters voted him the greatest athlete of the half century.
Few others honored him. Chaplin had gone home to England and was barred from returning. Almost all Tilden's other acquaintances avoided him. Mentally, he was rapidly disintegrating. He stopped bathing and changing his clothes. When he visited Maddox, the lawyer's secretary complained that his odor was unbearable.
Tilden would not concede that he was finished. Sixty years old, sick and out of shape, he persuaded a former pupil to give him money for the trip to Cleveland for the U.S. Professional Tennis Championships. The day before he was to enter one more championship tournament, he dropped dead.
Suggestions for Further Reading
"Big Bill," Time (June 15, 1953).
Deford, Frank. Big Bil/Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
Tilden, William Tatem 11. My Story. New York: Hellman, Williams, 1948.