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."
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.
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.
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). □