Bill Tilden

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William Tatem Tilden II (February 10, 1893 - June 5, 1953), often called "Big Bill", was an American tennis player. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to a wealthy family, he was a "Junior" at birth but changed his name to "II" when he was in his mid-20s.

Bill Tilden hitting a backhand, rights granted by the Chicago Historical Society
Bill Tilden hitting a backhand, rights granted by the Chicago Historical Society


Tilden's importance to tennis

Tilden was a champion player of the 1920s and 1930s who was the single most influential person in the history of tennis. He was also perhaps the most paradoxical figure in the history of any sport -- a HOMOSEXUAL who almost single-handedly changed the image of tennis from that of a "sissy" country-club sport played only by rich white people in long white pants or ankle-length skirts to that of a major sport played by robust, world-class athletes. In the sports-mad decade of the "Roaring Twenties", Tilden was one of the five dominant figures, along with Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, and Jack Dempsey. Although Tilden was deeply closeted most of his life, many of his fellow players knew of his inclinations; it was only the public that ironically never learned of his orientation until many years later, by which time he had made tennis the major sport it now is.

Tilden's greatness as a player

Except for an extended period in the 1950s when Pancho Gonzales completely ruled the men's professional tour, there has never been an era in tennis more dominated by a single player. During a 7-year period in the 1920s it was said that Tilden never lost a single important match, particularly in the Davis Cup matches, which in those days had far more importance than they do today. Among his many achievements, he won the United States amateur championship 6 times in succession and 7 times altogether. And from 1920 through 1926 he led the United States team to 7 consecutive Davis Cup victories, a record that is still unequalled.

Unique among tennis players, Tilden became a great player only at the relatively advanced age of 27. Prior to 1920 he had won a number of national doubles titles but had lost to Lindley Murray and "Little Bill" Johnston in the 1918 and 1919 singles championships. In the winter of 1919-20 he moved to Rhode Island where, on an indoor court, he devoted himself to remodeling his relatively ineffective backhand. It was all he needed. He emerged with a new grip and a powerful new backhand in the summer of 1920 and for the rest of the decade dominated world tennis.

Tall, lean, and gangly, with long arms, enormous hands, and exceptionally broad shoulders, Tilden possessed what was called at the time a "cannonball" service. Although he could serve aces almost at will, he had little interest in advancing to the net behind his serve. He primarily used spin and slice serves, reserving his famous cannonball for crucial moments in the match.

It was little known at the time, but mid-way through the 20s the tip of Tilden's middle finger on his hand that gripped the racquet became infected and had to be amputated. He also had a chronic knee problem that hindered him seriously from time to time. This too was concealed from the public and hardly seemed to impede him in his long string of victories.

In spite of his powerful serve, Tilden preferred to play from the backcourt, where he dazzled opponents with his ever-changing tactics: a mixture of guile, of chopped and sliced shots, of dropshots and lobs, and of sudden powerful ground strokes deep to the corners. He hit superbly angled shots on nearly impossible returns and liked nothing better than to face an opponent who threw powerful serves and ground strokes at him and who rushed the net -- one way or another Tilden would find a way to hit the ball past him.

Tilden the intellectual

Tilden may have spent more time analyzing the game of tennis than anyone before or since. He wrote two books about the game, The Art of Lawn Tennis (online text) and Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, the latter of which is still in print and is the definitive work on the subject. Besides his great physical abilities, he was an extremely cerebral player, a master of both strategy and tactics, adept at adapting himself to his opponent's style and turning his strengths against him. He was also known for his showmanship, which occasionally veered into what his opponents might have called gamesmanship. He always tried to give his paying audience its money's worth and it was frequently written, though never confirmed by Tilden himself, that he would deliberately lose the opening sets of a match in order to prolong the battle and to make it more interesting for both himself and the spectators. (This ploy was confirmed in 1963 by William Lufler, who played on Tilden's pro tour for several years. Lufler, who had become a highly regarded teaching pro -- he was intstrumental in forming the USPTA, and served as its president 1963-1966 -- claimed that Tilden threw the early sets in most matches.) In spite of his occasional overly colorful behavior he was a devout believer in sportsmanship at all costs and above all other aspects of the game, including the final score; he would readily (and dramatically) cede points to his opponent if he thought the umpire had miscalled a shot in Tilden's favor.

Tilden the consummate showman on the court was also a ham and showman in the larger world. He wrote many unsuccessful short stories and novels about misunderstood but sportsman-like tennis players, and dreamed of being a star on Broadway and in Hollywood. Much of his off-the-court time -- as well as his money -- was devoted to these pursuits, with failure the inevitable result.

Tilden the pro

In the late 1920s the great French players known as the "Four Musketeers" finally wrested the Davis Cup away from Tilden and the United States, as well as his domination of the singles titles at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Tilden had long been at odds with the draconianly rigid amateur directors of the United States Lawn Tennis Association about his income derived from newspaper articles about tennis. He won his last major championship at Wimbledon in 1930 at the age of 37 but was no longer able to win titles at will. In 1931, in need of money, he turned professional and joined the fledgling pro tour, which had begun only in 1927. For the next 15 years he and a handful of other professionals barnstormed across the United States and Europe in a series of one-night stands, with Tilden still the player that people primarily paid to see. Even with such greats as Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, and Don Budge as his opponents, it was Tilden who ensured the box-office receipts -- and who could still hold his own against the much younger players for a first set or even an occasional match. In 1945 the 52-year old Tilden and his long-time doubles partner Vinnie Richards won the professional doubles championship -- they had won the United States amateur title 27 years earlier in 1918.

Tilden's place in history

For approximately 35 years, from about 1920 to 1955, Tilden was generally considered the greatest player who had ever lived, his only rivals being Vines and Budge. In the mid-1950s many people began to think that Gonzales had claimed that title. Since then, however, public opinion has swung away from the now nearly forgotten Gonzales to champions of the Open era, first to Rod Laver, then to John McEnroe, and finally to Pete Sampras.

Tilden, who was one of the most famous athletes in the world for many years, today is not widely remembered despite his former renown. During his lifetime, however, he was a flamboyant character who was never out of the public eye, acting in both movies and plays as well as playing tennis. He also had two arrests for sexual misbehavior with teenage boys in the late 1940s; these led to incarcerations in the Los Angeles area. In 1950, in spite of his legal record, which caused him to be shunned by much of the tennis world, an Associated Press poll named Bill Tilden the greatest tennis player of the half-century by a wider margin than that given to any athlete in any other sport.

Tilden's personal life

Born to wealth, Tilden lost all of his immediate family in a very short period of time during his boyhood and was raised by a maiden aunt. The loss of his father apparently marked him deeply and he spent all of his adult life attempting to create a father-son relationship with a long succession of ballboys and youthful tennis protégés, of whom Vinnie Richards was the most noted. He had no relationships with women at all and apparently very few sexual encounters with members of his own sex until he was well into his 40s and becoming increasingly effeminate in his mannerisms, particularly in the more liberal atmosphere of 1930s Europe.

Although Tilden almost never drank, he smoked heavily and disdained what today would be considered a healthy life style for an athlete; for most of his life his diet consisted of 3 enormous meals a day of steak and potatoes, with, perhaps, the occasional lamb chop.

Tilden's death

Although Tilden had been born to wealth, and earned large sums of money during his long career, particularly in his early years on the pro tour, he spent it lavishly, with much of it going to Broadway shows that he wrote, produced, and starred in. He died penniless in Los Angeles, California at the age of 60. He was preparing to leave for the United States Professional Championship tournament in Cleveland, Ohio when he fell dead of a stroke.

Biographical reference

Big Bill Tilden, The Triumphs and the Tragedy - Frank DeFord, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1976, ISBN 0-671-22254-6

Tilden was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1959.

Grand Slam wins

Wimbledon Championship

  • Singles, 1920, 1921, 1930
  • Doubles, 1927

U.S. Championship

  • Singles, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1929
    • Singles finalist, 1918, 1919, 1927
  • Doubles, 1918, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1927
    • Doubles finalist, 1919, 1926
  • Mixed Doubles, 1913, 1914, 1922, 1923
    • Mixed Doubles finalist, 1916, 1917, 1919, 1921, 1924

French Championship

  • Mixed Doubles, 1930
    • Singles finalist, 1927, 1930

Professional Tennis Championships wins

  • United States Professional Championship
    • Singles, 1931, 1935
  • French Professional Championship
    • Singles, 1933, 1934

Other Notable wins

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