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April 2004 Article

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Mortal Tennis By Greg Moran


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The Legend of "Big Bill"

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Greg Moran

I'm very fortunate to live just a deep lob away from New York City: home of the U.S. Open, my beloved, yet struggling Knicks and, of course, Broadway.

Now, I must admit that I'm much more of a popcorn and movies type of guy then champagne and "the theataaaaaa." No culture vulture here but now and then a play does come along that gets me going ("Mamma Mia" was fantastic and "Hairspray" was a lot of fun.) So, when I saw the ad in the New York Times for A.R. Gurney's "Big Bill," I grabbed my wife, credit card, and headed into the Big Apple.

Though the play, based on the life of Bill Tilden, didn't hit many winners (it jumped between decades too much and if you didn't know Tilden's tale the full impact of his tragic life didn't come through), it did arouse my interest in the man many still deem the greatest tennis player who ever lived. Dead for more than 50 years, "Big Bill's" journey from celebrated icon to a lonely death as an ostracized felon is one of the true tragedies in sports history.

When I mentioned the play to my students, most of them had no idea who Tilden was. Sadly "Big Bill" is largely a forgotten figure and with that in mind, I decided to devote this column to the man many call the "father of tennis."

Tilden's on-court accomplishments, as with all sports legends, speak for themselves. From 1912-1930 he won 138 out of 192 tournaments (not matches, tournaments). His match record during that time was 907-62. For you statistics junkies that's a .936 average.

The first American man to compete and win at Wimbledon (1920, 21 and 30) Tilden also captured seven U.S. National Singles titles (the equivalent of today's U.S. Open) and won 13 consecutive singles matches in Davis cup competition. His record of 10 Grand Slam titles stood until it was topped by Roy Emerson in 1967 and just recently, Pete Sampras. Into his 50's, "Big Bill" was still a factor in pro tennis. Many still considered Tilden the best player in the world for one set.

Interestingly, as a junior player he was nothing spectacular. His brother Herbert was the better player. Bill Tilden failed to make the starting six at the University of Pennsylvania and as a sophomore in college, wasn't even strong enough to get into the main draw of the NCAA tournament.

However, Tilden was consumed by tennis so he decided to tear apart his game and start from scratch. "I began tennis wrong," he said. "My strokes were wrong and my viewpoint clouded." He played in every tournament he could find. He hit thousands upon thousands of balls against the backboard, or when bad weather forced him inside, on a squash court.

He began to teach tennis and would give lessons free of charge to anyone interested. He meticulously studied the game and developed an entirely new approach to the sport--the complete player. Quite simply, Tilden revolutionized tennis.

He was the first to employ the all-court game. He mixed power with finesse from all areas of the court. Before Tilden, nobody had a big serve-"Big Bill" had a "cannonball," which old-timers swear reached speeds of nearly 150 mph. He also had incredible endurance, despite a horrible diet and chain smoking cigarettes.

In 1918 Tilden captured the U.S. Clay Court Championships and in 1920, at the age of 27, "Big Bill" won Wimbledon and stood at the top of the tennis world. For the next six years Tilden was virtually unbeatable. Frank Deford, author of "Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy" wrote:

"Playing for himself, for his country, for posterity, he was invincible. No man ever bestrode his sport as Tilden did for those years. It was not just that he could not be beaten, it was nearly as if he invented the sport he conquered. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange and the other fabled American sweat lords of the times stood at the head of more popular games, but Tilden simply was tennis in the public mind: Tilden and tennis, it was said, in that order."

So yes, the achievements are certainly there however, Tilden's legend was built much more on the way he played (and changed) the game and the persona he radiated than the statistics he compiled.

At six feet one and a half inches tall and 155 pounds, Tilden cut a dashing figure on the courts. He was a commanding presence who thought of himself first and foremost as a performer. The court was his stage and his role was to entertain. "The player owes the gallery as much as the actor owes the audience," he once wrote.

To that end he would prolong points, throw games, sets and often put himself on the brink of defeat so that he could stage the miraculous comeback and give the crowd a better show. "One thing for sure," said ex-player Junior Coen in Deford's book, "when he got out onto the court, that was his stage and he didn't want to hurry off." This not only illustrates Tilden's tremendous sense of theatre but also the extent of his superiority.

A less appealing part of Tilden's "act" was his demeanor. An extremely bright man possessed of strong opinions, many viewed Tilden as arrogant. He could be rude, offensive to officials and ball boys and constantly fought with the USLTA over various issues.

As his legend grew, so did his ego and poor behavior. Racket throwing, temper tantrums and arguing with linesman became part of the Tilden show long before Nastase, Connors or McEnroe came up with the idea.

As he began to slow with age, his results suffered and his attitude worsened. Of course, the behavior made for a better show. The fans booed him but they paid their money to do so. In fact, the crowds of people wanting to see "Big Bill" were largely responsible for tennis being moved from the small private clubs to big arenas and stadiums. Tennis events were suddenly a viable business. The tournaments and promoters were making a lot of money so Tilden's behavior often went overlooked.

In addition to his on-court achievements, Tilden was also an accomplished writer. He wrote fiction, non-fiction and three highly-praised instructional books: How to Play Better Tennis, The Art of Lawn Tennis and the classic Match Play and the Spin of the Ball.

Interestingly, Tilden's writing was another source of conflict between the player and the powers that ran the game. In those days, the idea of someone making money from tennis (a staunchly "amateur sport") was unheard of and that included writing about the game. Fed up with the constant battles with the USLTA, and with most of his friends having moved on with their lives, "Big Bill" finally turned professional in 1930.

As pro tennis tours grew in the 1930s and 40s Tilden remained a huge attraction even though he was nearly 50. Much like the circus coming to town, Tilden and his group of merry men traveled the country by car, set up their portable court at the arena, played their matches, packed up and headed on to the next city. The tour brought tennis to the masses and is largely credited with the explosion of the sport into the mainstream.

Despite his "star" status, "Big Bill" longed to be an actor more than anything else. He financed, wrote, produced and appeared in many plays (without much success). Tilden eventually moved to Hollywood where he frequently played tennis with stars such as Charlie Chaplin and coached Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and Douglas Fairbanks, among others.

Despite all of his accomplishments, Tilden was a man severely lacking in self-esteem and what little there was came from through his success in tennis. The sole survivor of his family at the age of 22, he was a tormented man. A deeply in the closet homosexual, Tilden was attracted to younger men and frequently traveled with a harem of "ball boys."

As he aged and his game declined, he became publicly much more effeminate and bold in his behavior. Though he had a few close calls with the law, they were all covered up. Of course, the idea of tennis' icon being caught in a compromising position with a young boy would be bad for the game so people simply looked the other way.

In 1946 Tilden's luck ran out, and he was arrested and convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was sent to prison and served seven months of a one-year sentence. In 1949, Tilden was convicted again for approaching a 16-year-old hitchhiker and sentenced to another year in prison, of which he served 10 months.

The second conviction proved devastating for "Big Bill." Barred from tennis clubs and the pro circuit, Tilden's friends and money slowly drifted away. He had earned nearly half a million dollars, which at that time was a fortune, but through his poor business sense and generosity, he lost virtually all of it.

His racket company, Dunlop, ordered the recall of all of its equipment bearing Tilden's name. Old friends simply turned and walked away as he approached them. Ultimately, he was forced to sell some of his trophies to make ends meet.

Tilden still fought to be the one place where his inner demons couldn't find him--the tennis court. He picked up the odd lesson here and there. Wandering by the few tennis clubs that would allow him, the former champion of the world would try to pick up a game with anyone, often for no money. Imagine Michael Jordon wandering from playground to playground, looking and hoping for someone to shoot some hoops with him. That was the plight of the former tennis champion of the world towards the end.

In 1953 he did manage to find a teaching job at a broken down public court near Grauman's Chinese Theatre but was hired more as an attraction--freak show.

The once meticulously put together Tilden began to let his hygiene go as well. Wearing dirty, wrinkled tennis clothes, he often failed to shower after his day on the court. He seemed to only wear tennis clothes and would conveniently turn up at the houses of people he knew just around dinnertime and then fall asleep on their couches for the night.

His health had started to decline and he would often have to stop play, put his racket down, and walk to the back fence where he supported himself and coughed-deep hard coughs from down in his soul.

In 1953 an old friend invited Tilden to co-promote and play in the inaugural National Professional Hardcourt Championships. Excited to be back in tennis, "Big Bill" invited all of his old friends to enter the event and sold tickets to many of his Hollywood contacts.

Sadly, two days before the tournament was to begin Tilden was told that because of the hundreds of letters complaining about his involvement in the event, he would have to step aside. Tilden protested but ultimately withdrew feigning an arm injury.

Desperately in need of money, "Big Bill" phoned one of his regular students and offered him a deal: 40 hours of lessons for $200--paid in advance. Tilden planned to go out to Texas to play some exhibitions and then on to Cleveland to enter the U.S. Pro Championships and needed the cash. In his mind he was still a player and there was a match to be played.

The night before he was to leave, "Big Bill" had been invited to a going-away dinner at the home of Arthur Anderson, one of the few who had stuck by him. When the perennially punctual Tilden didn't show up on time, the Andersons went to his hotel to check on him. He was found dead on his bed, dressed and ready for dinner, bags packed for the trip tomorrow.

"Big Bill" Tilden died of a heart attack on June 5th 1953. He left behind $142.11 in cash and $140.00 worth of American Express traveler's checks, with $200 owed to the student for lessons he wouldn't receive. At his memorial service, a small group of personal friends attended but no one from the USLTA.

This article is not meant to be an in-depth study of Bill Tilden. For that you should buy Frank Deford's engrossing book, "Big Bill Tilden." It truly is a tennis classic. My hope is to remind you of, or perhaps introduce you to, one of the most important figures in our sport's history.

A truly tragic figure, Bill Tilden, is one to be admired for all he meant to the game, sympathized with for his inner struggles, perhaps condemned for his crimes but certainly never forgotten.

See you next month!

Additional Reading:

Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy by Frank Deford

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This column is copyrighted by Greg Moran, all rights reserved.

Greg Moran is the Head Professional at the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, Connecticut. He is a former ranked junior and college player and certified by both the USPTA and USPTR. Greg has written on a wide variety of tennis-related subjects for numerous newspapers and tennis publications including Tennis, Tennis Match and Court Time magazines. He is also a member of the FILA and WILSON Advisory Staffs.

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