The Greatest: The Men and Women Who Made Tennis. No.1 – Bill Tilden

In the absence of any professional tennis anywhere until at least June, we at LWOT have been turning to the past for inspiration – and content.  Consequently, in a new series, our resident tennis historian, Martin Keady, looks at The Greatest: The Men and Women Who Made Tennis. He begins with a man who is now largely forgotten but who once ruled the tennis world – Bill Tilden.

Bill Tilden is the forgotten champion. Whereas most figures of comparable historical importance in other sports – such as Pele, Don Bradman or Ben Hogan – are still rightly remembered and celebrated for their seminal contribution to the development of their chosen sport, Tilden is barely remembered at all today, nearly a hundred years after his heyday, and certainly not celebrated, either by the fans or administrators of tennis. That is because of the personal scandal that engulfed him after he had stopped playing at the highest level. However, nothing should detract from the unique role he played in helping to popularise tennis.

The sport of tennis as we know it today began at the end of the 19th century in Britain, when so many of the great professional sports that continue today, from football to golf, were first properly codified and regulated. It was called lawn tennis because it was originally only played on grass, the first outdoor version of the original game of tennis, or real tennis, which had been played since the Middle Ages, originally without rackets. Lawn tennis was first developed by the marvellously named Walter Clopton Wingfield in the early to mid 1870s. In 1877, Wimbledon became the first tennis tournament in the world (eventually commemorating Wingfield by commissioning a statue of him for its museum), and it was soon followed by other tournaments around the world, including what became the three other “Majors” or Grand Slam tournaments: the US Open (which was first played in 1881); the French Open (1891); and the Australian Open (1905).

Nevertheless, for nearly the first half-century of its existence, tennis struggled to capture the global sporting imagination in the way that more obviously popular sports, in particular football, did. The major reason for this was that tennis was both an amateur sport (and would remain so until 1968 and the start of the “Open”, or fully professional, era) and one that required, certainly in comparison with other sports, a considerable amount of space (for the court) and equipment (principally the rackets but also the balls). This naturally limited its appeal considerably, such that up to the outbreak of World War One it was largely perceived as an upper-class or even aristocratic sport, with relatively little or no mass appeal.

Of course, World War One effectively curtailed all sport, at least in Europe (although it has to be acknowledged that the current Coronavirus crisis has completely shut down professional sport around the world in a way that neither World War achieved). After World War One, however, two great champions – one man and one woman – helped to take tennis out of the country clubs and stately homes that had been seen as its natural domain and literally launched it onto the world sporting stage. The woman was the great French champion, Suzanne Lenglen, who will be the subject of the next instalment in this series. And the man was the great American champion, Bill Tilden.

Tilden was born in Germantown, Philadelphia, in 1893, so just over five years after the first ever Wimbledon Championships was held. The story of how he became such a great tennis player is a fascinating one, which points to the unique importance that the game played in his life and which also suggests why he was ultimately so devastated when he was no longer able to play at a high level. Although he had played tennis since he was a child, especially at his wealthy family’s summer home in the Catskill Mountains, it was only after the deaths of both his father and his brother, in swift succession, in his early twenties that he became obsessed by it. Allegedly, a beloved aunt suggested that it would be the perfect way for him to overcome, or at least temporarily forget, the depression that he suffered after losing two such close family members. She could certainly never have imagined that the game would have quite such a transformative effect on his life, not only lifting him out of his depression but for a time makling him one of the most famous sportsmen in the world.

Tilden first began playing tennis seriously at a local level, winning the State Championship in Pennsylvania four times in succession between 1914 and 1917, but he soon began to make an impact nationally. He first reached the Final of the US Championships (as America’s foremost tournament was called until 1968, when it became “the US Open” to mark the transition to the professional era in tennis) in 1918, losing to the defending champion and then-dominant American male player, Robert Lindley Murray, in straight sets. A year later, Tilden again succumbed in straight sets in the final, this time to another Bill – Bill Johnston – but finally, in 1920, after winning his first Wimbledon title earlier that summer, he turned the tables on his namesake by winning one of the all-time great US Open Finals in five sets (6–1, 1–6, 7–5, 5–7, 6–3).

The fortunes of the two Bills were interlinked, especially in America. Johnston, who won the US Open before Tilden, was known as “Little Bill”, in comparison with Tilden, who was soon dubbed “Big Bill”. This was initially a reference to their respective heights – Tilden was, for the time, a fairly colossal 6 foot one, while Johnston was only five foot eight. However, throughout the rest of the 1920s, their nicknames also came to reflect the difference in the scale of their achievements. Johnston won a thoroughly respectable three Majors (the US Open in 1915 and 1919, and Wimbledon in 1923), but Tilden would go on to dominate men’s tennis in the Jazz Age, winning a remarkable 10 Majors over the next decade.

It was in America, at his home Major, that Tilden was virtually unbeatable. He won a remarkable six US titles in a row between 1920 and 1925. To put this in true historical perspective, even the great Roger Federer in the most imperial phase of his career could “only” win five US Opens in a row between 2004 and 2008, some sixty years later. And for good measure, Tilden also won the tournament at the end of the decade, in 1929. His seven US titles in total mean that he is still the joint all-time record-holder for US title wins, alongside two other Americans, Richard Sears and William Larned, who had dominated the tournament at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century respectively.

Tilden never achieved the same level of success abroad. He won Wimbledon twice more, retaining it in 1921 and also triumphing in 1930. However, at a time when the Australian Open was very much the junior member of the four Majors, largely due to Australia’s geographical isolation from the rest of the world before the widespread introduction of jet travel, Tilden failed at what was then the third great Major event in tennis, the French championships. He twice reached the final, in 1927 and 1930, but on both occasions he lost to one of the legendary “Musquetaires” of French tennis: first, to René Lacoste; and then to Henri Cochet. Both of those finals were genuine, five-set epics, with the first against Lacoste going to 11-9 in the final set.

Nevertheless, even if Tilden never actually won the French title, he succeeded in winning many French hearts and minds, despite the fact that his classical serve-volley game was far better suited to grass than clay, which allowed him to excel at both Wimbledon and the US Open when both those tournaments were played on grass (the US Open only stopped being played on grass in 1975). In particular, he was regarded as an outstanding sportsman, especially when the US team that he led contested six successive Davis Cup Finals against France in the second half of the 1920s, winning the first two and then losing the next four in a series of Transatlantic team tennis battles that contributed hugely to the growth in the popularity of the sport on both sides of the Atlantic.

After winning his final Major title at Wimbledon in 1930, Tilden turned professional and finally stopped competing for the game’s biggest prizes, the Majors, which remained open only to amateurs for nearly another four decades. Eager to try and convert what by then was his considerable fame into at least a little cash, Tilden joined the first professional tennis tour in America, making a good living for the next decade or so, until in 1946 came the scandal that would eventually ruin him and, arguably, shorten his life.

Throughout his tennis career, “Big Bill” Tilden had been regarded as almost the epitome of American masculinity, the Alpha Male of tennis. Therefore, it was all the more shocking, and scandalising, when he was arrested in November 1946 in Los Angeles for what now sounds the rather quaint and old-fashioned offence of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor”, but was actually the crime of soliciting a 14-year-old boy to have sex with him in his car. The icon of American manhood was immediately toppled. He was jailed for a year, serving a little over half of that time, but when he was released on parole the scandal was such that he effectively lost his livelihood as a professional tennis player and coach. In 1949, he was charged with a similar offence involving a 16-year-old boy and was again sentenced to prison, this time serving 10 months inside.

Tilden’s fall from grace was spectacular, and total. From having been one of the most famous and celebrated men in America just a decade earlier, he was now a virtual pariah. Touchingly, one of the few famous friends and contemporaries who stood by him, at least in private, was Charlie Chaplin, who allowed Tilden to continue using his private court long after most public courts and official tournaments had banned him from playing. At least in part, that was almost certainly because Chaplin himself had experienced his own fall from grace, having gone from being the most famous silent movie star in the world to the most high-profile victim of the anti-Communist witch-hunts that scarred American public life after World War Two.

Although Tilden’s two arrests involved minors, it must also be remembered that he was playing at a time when there was rampant homophobia in sport and society. There was never any evidence that he had made unwanted sexual advances towards any of the many children he coached and, as has happened subsequently in many other public scandals involving both heterosexual and homosexual celebrities, it is at least possible that he was unaware of the actual ages of the boys he allegedly propositioned. That is not to diminish in any way the seriousness of the allegations and charges against Tilden of what today would be called “grooming” or even paedophilia. It is simply to place them in the largely homophobic historical context of the time in which he lived and played.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Bill Tilden’s truly storied life is that he was just setting out on the path to what might eventually have become a comeback of sorts when he died. In June 1953, he was about to travel to the US Professional Tennis Championships in Cleveland when he was taken ill at home in Los Angeles and eventually died of heart problems. However, the very fact that, aged nearly 60, he was still having to play tennis for money rather than pleasure was a testament to how far his stock, both financially and in sporting terms, had fallen.

Nearly 70 years on from his death, Bill Tilden is now largely known only by tennis historians rather than the wider tennis public, which is a genuine sporting tragedy. The man who had done so much, alongside Suzanne Lenglen, to popularise the sport after World War One and throughout the 1920s deserves to be remembered, if he is remembered at all, for far more than the scandal that destroyed him. In 2020, when the Coronavirus crisis has temporarily halted all professional tennis around the world, tennis fans around the world should rediscover the great champion who arguably did more to boost the profile of the sport than any other man before or since.

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