Joel Drucker: Happy Birthday, Bill Tilden

Friday, February 10

Happy Birthday, Bill Tilden

One of tennis’ all-time greats, Bill Tilden, was born on this day in 1893. Though his 10 Grand Slam singles titles and six straight years as the world’s best (1920-’25) testify powerfully to his brilliance, that’s only a part of Tilden’s tremendous tennis legacy. Tilden was truly tennis’ first modern great. Along with Babe Ruth in baseball, Red Grange in football, Bobby Jones in baseball and Jack Dempsey in boxing, Tilden was part of the first so-called “Golden Age” of sports – the 1920s, a decade when sports jumped off the periphery into the center of popular culture. As a popular phrase went for decades, “Tilden and tennis – in that order.” Big Bill conducted himself theatrically, treating the court as a stage for his personal performances in front of everyone from the game’s growing fan base to royalty.

Even more, Tilden was a keen student of the game. Prior to reaching the top, he spent months refining his backhand. Many of Tilden’s ideas about technique and tactics were detailed in several books, most notably “Match Play and The Spin of the Ball,” a volume who’s ideas remain relevant. “Nothing destroys a man’s confidence, breaks up his game and ruins his fighting spirit like errors,” wrote Tilden. “The more shots he misses, the more he worries, and ultimately, the worse he plays. That is why so many players are said to be ‘off their game’ against me. I set out to put them ‘off their game.’”

But there was also a sad backstory to Tilden’s journey. By age 22, his mother, father and older brother had all died – losses that scarred him tremendously. Tilden was also a homosexual during a time when it was often vital to keep that under wraps. Outside the lines, Tilden wasn’t the only athlete to learn that it’s not so easy, his efforts as an actor, playwright, and novelist all failing miserably. Squandering his savings on many creative forays, Tilden lived the life of a tennis gypsy, traipsing the world to compete in pro tournaments.

Over the last quarter-century of his life, Tilden lived in Los Angeles. There he’d hoped to find his way into film. But while he taught such stars as Charlie Chaplin and Joseph Cotten, Tilden was also sent twice to jail on charges of sexual involvement with underage boys. If one prison term could be tolerated by the live-and-let-live Hollywood community, a repeat was a deal-breaker. Emerging from his second sentence, Tilden was a pariah, reduced to sneaking on to courts to give lessons. At the age of sixty, about to trek to Cleveland to play yet another tennis event, Tilden died in a hotel just off Hollywood and Vine.

Coming Up

+ Saturday: What We All Learned From Roger Federer

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