Tilden brought theatrics to tennis

Updated: March 11, 2005, 8:38 AM ET
By Ron Borges | Special to ESPN.com

"He stood for an awful lot more than just having that label (being a homosexual) track him down throughout the rest of his life. It's a shame that tennis had to suffer over something so unimportant, especially in today's times. Maybe back then, the attitude was a bit different. But in today's times, that would just fly right over and he'd be the great player that he was," says five-time U.S. Open champion Jimmy Connors on ESPN's Classic's SportsCentury profile of Bill Tilden.

Not even Bill Tilden's penchant for self-destruction was enough for anyone to challenge his place in tennis history. Through glorious triumph and inglorious tragedy, Tilden remained Big Bill.

Of all his remarkable feats none can surpass this: In 1950, during an era of closed minds, the Red scare and sexual conservatism, Big Bill Tilden was overwhelmingly voted the greatest tennis player of the first half of the 20th century in an Associated Press poll only six weeks after being released from prison for the second time on a conviction of having fondled and made unwanted advances to a teenage boy.

Today such a troubled man might be the darling of television. He would be on Montel Williams one day, Larry King the next, Oprah repeatedly. But that is today, at the beginning of the 21st century.

In 1950, there was little tolerance for sexual peccadilloes once exposed to the light of day. Yet there strode Tilden through it all, broke and beaten but too dominating of his game to be denied his place atop the Olympus of tennis.

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

Tilden was a shining light during sports' Golden Age. In the 1920s his star glowed as brightly as did the stars of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange and Bobby Jones.

Tilden was more than a player who won every major title he contested for six straight years, including six U.S. Nationals (1920-25). His greatness was not simply in his ability to hit a tennis ball. It lay as much in the way he did it, just as his long and tragic fall into poverty and isolated disrepute was as much a self-destructive passion play as it was merely about homosexual sex.

On the court and in his life, Tilden was an actor as well as an athlete. He was a performer before athletes had the instant-replay stage and so his legend grew in the best of ways, by word of mouth. He was one of a kind, a myth as much as a man, and tennis could never fully ignore him, even at the end when it so desperately wanted to.

"To his opponents, it was a contest," Paul Gallico wrote. "With Tilden, it was an expression of his own tremendous and overwhelming ego, coupled with feminine vanity."

Perhaps so, but Franklin Adams saw more than that when describing Tilden's magic in 1921. "He is an artist," Adams wrote. "Tilden is more of an artist than 9/10s of the artists I know. It is the beauty of the game that Tilden loves. It is the chase always, rather than the quarry."

Born a son of privilege on Philadelphia's Main Line on Feb. 10, 1893, Tilden lived a sheltered life. He wasn't allowed into the city's parks. He was tutored at home until junior high school by a mother who was overly protective of him and a father who was aloof and distant, emotions perhaps the product of having lost three infant children to diphtheria in a span of three weeks in 1884.

Although he disliked tennis initially, Tilden won his first tournament at age seven at an exclusive private club in upstate New York and a 15-and-under tournament at eight. Yet the boy referred to as "Master Junior" by the hired help remained a sickly child in the eyes of his mother despite suffering no outward signs of illness.

Tilden's mother early on warned her son of the evils of contracting venereal disease from women. When she suffered from Bright's disease in 1908, Tilden was shipped to Germantown Academy and lived with a maiden aunt and her niece not far from his home rather than remain with his father. He would retain his room in that house for 33 years.

Tilden's mother died of a stroke in 1911 with her son sitting outside her door all night, crying. By then, Tilden was unhappily attending Penn, where he had failed to make the tennis team in his first try.

By 1919, Tilden had improved considerably. At 26, he was a finalist at the U.S. Nationals. But there still was something lacking in his game. Bill Johnston destroyed him, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, not losing his service.

It was a humiliating afternoon in which Johnston repeatedly took advantage of Tilden's weak backhand. That winter, Tilden moved to Newport, R.I., and made a deal with a wealthy insurance executive who owned one of the few indoor courts in the country. He agreed to regularly play tennis with his son, in exchange for being free to work on his own game indoors.

Obsessively Tilden developed a topspin backhand -- chopping wood daily to gain strength -- and hitting backhand after backhand. The work paid off when he again met Johnston at the 1920 U.S. Nationals final and proved for the first time what he would write often in his instructional manuals years later, "Champions are born in the labor of defeat."

Already theatrical, Tilden walked to the court in a camel hair coat and won the first set 6-1, but Johnston won two of the next three sets. After more than three hours, Big Bill Tilden was born, winning the final set 6-3.

Suddenly, Tilden was transformed. He was unbeatable. The record of his dominance is clear. He won seven U.S. singles titles, finishing with 73 victories in 80 matches.

He won three Wimbledon titles, finding those victories so casual that he declined to continue going back to London on a slow boat simply to complete a fast victory everyone knew was inevitable once he became the first American to win the tournament in 1920 and 1921. He didn't compete at Wimbledon from 1922-26; the next three years he lost in the semifinals before becoming the oldest man to win a Wimbledon singles title, at 37 in 1930.

He won seven U.S. clay court titles, five U.S. doubles titles and four national indoor titles while also leading the U.S. to seven consecutive Davis Cups from 1920-26, including 13 straight singles victories in Cup competition. He didn't lose a match in 1924 and won 57 consecutive games at one stretch in 1925.

Of those days, Tilden matter of factly said, "When I missed, I was surprised."

A failed actor and novelist who lost much of his personal fortune backing Broadway plays that were far less successful than he was on the court, Tilden explained his actions by saying, "The player owes the gallery as much as an actor owes the audience."

The play was the thing for Tilden but the more he won the more his other weaknesses showed. He would arrogantly hold four balls in his hand at once, serve three aces and then throw the fourth aside and walk away, a move many opponents naturally found distasteful. "All of his personal liabilities were accentuated by his success," said Tilden's friend Carl Fisher.

For years, Tilden refused to turn professional himself, once turning down $50,000 from promoters Cash and Carry Pyle to form a pro tour. When Pyle said, "Mr. Tilden, I think you're a damn fool," Tilden replied, "Mr. Pyle, I think your right."

Perhaps weary of his battles with the USLTA, Tilden finally relented and turned pro in 1930, on the heels of his final Wimbledon victory. It was estimated Tilden made more than $500,000 on his tour between 1931-37, but as his game began to deteriorate with age, his homosexuality became more outward. He began traveling with hand-picked teenaged ball boys and was soon banned from many of the nation's tennis and country clubs.

Tilden died of coronary thrombosis at age 60 on June 5, 1953 in his bed. He had $282.11 in cash and traveler's checks with him and a refund due of $6; $200 was returned to a student for lessons never given. Big Bill's net worth was $88.11.

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