Blast from the Tennis Past: Big Bill Tilden—A Tragic Hero?

JA AllenSenior Writer IMarch 14, 2009

Like many tragic sports figures, "the fault lay not in the stars but in himself" for tennis legend William “Bill” Tilden. Loving the limelight, the footlights and the spotlight, Tilden shunned real life for the artificial, constructing a world he could not inhabit. No one could. 

Born into wealth and privilege, pampered by an over-protective mother, and held at arm’s length by a grief-stricken father, Tilden was forced into tennis at his father’s insistence. 

At first, he showed promise at an early age, but he did not care for the game. Later on he avoided life by playing tennis, finding the soothing rhythm of its point, counter-point a barrier against outside emotional distress.

Tilden reigned supreme during the 1920s in America, often sharing sporting headlines with notables like Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Red Grange, and boxer Jack Dempsey during a time referred to as the golden age of sports.

Tilden won every major tournament he entered for six years, including six U.S. Nationals (now called the U.S. Open).  It is his record that Roger Federer now chases, as he aspires to win his sixth U.S. Open during the summer of 2009.

Because of his fame—his notoriety—Big Bill felt he was immune from criticism and from the court system. He was openly flamboyant and gay during an era when such things were not discussed in polite society. 

His attraction to young boys was renowned, and Tilden did nothing to hide his tendencies from the public.

Eventually as his aberrant appetites increased and he was arrested, his other eccentricities drained him of his fortune. He sank into poverty and disrepute.    

Even so, “Big Bill” Tilden continues to be in the conversation as one of the best players in tennis history—especially as one of the best Americans ever to play the game.  His influence on tennis remains unparalleled. 

He advanced the modern game more than any other player over a longer period of time.

As part of an American Press poll taken in 1950, Tilden was almost unanimously voted the best tennis player of the first half of the twentieth century—this only weeks after being released from prison for fondling and making advances toward a teenage boy. 

This was 1950 and no one tolerated such behavior. It was an era when we embraced intolerance, closed minds, sexual purity and feared the advance of communism in the guise of the Red Scare.

Tilden’s prowess on the tennis court outweighed his darker nature even during this unforgiving age. The world applauded his skills and rewarded him with this accolade.

Tilden won three Wimbledon titles, seven U.S. Open championships and he also led the United States to seven Davis Cup victories. 

Frank Deford wrote in his biography Big Bill Tilden, “Playing for himself, for his country, for posterity, he was invincible. Tilden simply was tennis in the public mind.”

He dominated the game more than any other player in tennis history. Remarkably his fame was not achieved until he reached the age of 27. At age 26, after being soundly defeated by “Little Bill Johnston” 6-4,6-4, 6-3 in the finals of the U.S. Nationals, Bill Tilden took matters into his own hands.

He used the winter of 1919 to overhaul his game at an indoor court in Rhode Island, constructing a new grip and a powerful new backhand. In 1920 he became the first American to win Wimbledon. There was no stopping him after that.

Tilden was tall, over 6'0", with long legs and broad shoulders. His serve was extraordinary, often referred to as a cannonball. 

It was claimed that his serve was clocked at 163.3 miles per hour, but most experts dispute that, claiming that not only were recording mechanisms suspect, but that the old wooden racket could never generate that speed.

He played from the backcourt and picked his opponents apart with pinpoint accuracy and guile as well as chopped and sliced shots, lobs and drop shots. He was a clever player, a student of the game. 

He wrote two books about the strategies of playing tennis. His mental acumen is often overlooked in discussing his overall prowess on court.

He became so dominant that it is said he would throw opening sets just to make it more interesting for himself—and ultimately the fans. Tilden was a showman. He was always performing for an audience. 

He said after winning his first two Wimbledon tournaments that it was too easy—so he didn’t play for the next three years. His last win at Wimbledon came many years later when he became the oldest man to win the tournament at age 37 in 1930.

Many refer to the artistry of the Tilden game, insisting that it was the beauty of the game that Tilden pursued more than the victory. The unfolding of the contest was much like a play and Tilden was the consummate actor who loved pleasing his audience.

As Tilden’s fame and fortune grew, so did his eccentricities. Besides his penchant for young men, he began to sink his vast fortune into theater and film projects that failed time after time. 

His fortune dwindled as his notoriety grew, and soon he was banned from tennis clubs and tournaments because of his blatant homosexual behavior.

He played professional tennis into his late 40s but died penniless at age 60 from coronary thrombosis. It is claimed that he had $88.11 left at his death.

Hopefully, Tilden would not suffer as much from his indiscriminate behavior today.  He never apologized for his lifestyle while he lived, preferring to accord himself the title of “artist.” 

He said, “I am not a criminal!  I am a tennis player.  I feel awkward saying this, but I consider myself an artist, an artist of the game...I have to create...”

He did just that—he helped create the modern game as we know it today. He deserves to be remembered and accorded his place in our collective tennis memory.


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