Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy

Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy

by Frank Deford

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The classic biography of America’s first tennis starWhen he stepped onto the Wimbledon grass in 1920, Bill Tilden was poised to become the world’s greatest tennis star. Throughout the 1920s he dominated the sport, winning championship after championship with his trademark grace, power, and intelligence. He owned the game more completely than Babe


The classic biography of America’s first tennis starWhen he stepped onto the Wimbledon grass in 1920, Bill Tilden was poised to become the world’s greatest tennis star. Throughout the 1920s he dominated the sport, winning championship after championship with his trademark grace, power, and intelligence. He owned the game more completely than Babe Ruth ruled baseball, making his name, for more than a decade, synonymous with tennis. Phenomenally intelligent—he completed his first book on tennis in the three weeks before his first Wimbledon triumph—Tilden’s success came with a dark side. This classic biography by legendary sports writer Frank Deford tells of Tilden’s dominance, which was unlike anything the sport had ever seen—and the big man’s tragic fall.

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Big Bill Tilden

The Triumphs and the Tragedy

By Frank Deford


Copyright © 1976 Frank Deford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-2067-2


"I'll play my own sweet game"

With any artist who attains the ultimate in his craft, there must be one moment, an instant, when genius is first realized, when a confluence of God's natural gifts at last swirl together with the full powers of endeavor and devotion in the man to bear him to greatness. Virtually always, of course, that moment cannot be perceived, and it passes unnoticed, but with Big Bill Tilden it was isolated, forever frozen in time. He knew precisely when he had arrived, and, thoughtfully, he revealed it.

This happened on Centre Court at Wimbledon in 1920. Tilden was already twenty-seven, and although he had never won a major championship, he had reached the finals. It was his first trip abroad, and to his delight the British, unlike his own countrymen, had taken to him right away. Americans always only grudgingly granted Tilden recognition, never mind respect, largely because they were emotionally hung up on Big Bill's main rival, Bill Johnston, who was affectionately known as Little Bill, or even, in the soupiest moments, Wee Willie Winkie. Johnston was five feet eight, a wonderful cute doll-person from the California middle class, and all Americans (Tilden prominently included) were absolutely nuts about him: the little underdog with the big heart who cut larger fellows down to size.

By contrast, at six feet one and a half inches tall, 155 pounds, angular and overbearing, a Philadelphia patrician of intellectual pretension, Big Bill was the perfect foil for Little Bill, and the great American villain. Until 1920 he had also cooperated by remaining a loser with a healthy reputation for choking in important matches. The year before, in the finals at Forest Hills, Johnston had defeated Tilden in straight sets, and so it was assumed that Wimbledon would serve as the stage where Johnston, the American champion, would duel Gerald Patterson, the Wimbledon defender, for the undisputed championship of the world.

Unfortunately for hopes for this classic confrontation, Johnston was waylaid in an early round by a steady English player named J. C. Parke. Not until the next day, when Tilden routed Parke, avenging Little Bill's defeat, did Big Bill move front and center as Patterson's most conspicuous challenger. Of course, from the moment Tilden strode upon their grass that summer, the British had been enchanted with him—his game, his manner, his idiosyncrasies: "this smiling youth, so different from other Americans." A woolly blue sweater Tilden wore seems to have positively enthralled the entire nation, and the London Times exclaimed that "his jumpers are the topic of the tea-table."

While little Johnston struck the British as just that, a pleasant little sort, the lean giant caused them admiration and wonder: "Of great stature, he is loosely built with slender hips and very broad shoulders ... in figure, an ideal lawn tennis player." His game they found so arresting— "There is no stroke Mr. Tilden cannot do at full speed, and his is undoubtedly the fastest serve seen" —that one of the more poetic observers even rhapsodized, "His silhouette as he prepares to serve suggests an Egyptian pyramid king about to administer punishment."

Seeing Tilden for the first time, unprepared for that sight, was obviously a striking experience. Not so much in what exactly they said but in their evident astonishment and determined hyperbolic reach do the British of 1920 best intimate what an extraordinary presence Big Bill Tilden must have been. Yet perhaps even more important, the British understood immediately that here was a different sort of athletic temperament. The Americans were not to fathom this in Tilden for years, if indeed many of them ever did. But Tilden had played only a handful of matches in England that summer before he was assessed perfectly in the sporting press: "He gives the impression that he regards lawn tennis as a game—a game which enables him to do fascinating things, but still a game.... When he has something in hand he indulges his taste for the varied at the expense of the commercial."

Pleased at the attention given him, even more gratified that his playing philosophy was appreciated, Tilden grew assured, and, boldly and not without some conceit, he began to enunciate his theories of the game. When not at the courts or attending the theater, he spent all his time writing in his hotel room, and within three weeks he had completed his first book, The Art of Tennis. "The primary object in match tennis is to break up the other man's game" was, significantly, the point he most emphasized.

Patterson, meanwhile, remained quite confident. An Australian, the nephew of the great opera star Nellie Melba, he was not only the defending Wimbledon champion but star of the team which held the Davis Cup. He was at his peak and generally recognized above Johnston as the ranking player in the world. At Wimbledon Patterson had only to bide his time scouting the opposition and practice at his leisure, for in those days the defender did not play in the regular tournament but was obliged only to meet the "allcomers" winner in a special challenge round.

Patterson's supremacy seemed all the more obvious after Tilden appeared to struggle in the all-comers final against the Japanese, Zenzo Shimizu. In each set Tilden fell far behind: 1-4 in the first, 2-4 in the second, 2-5 in the third. He won 6-4, 6-4, 13-11. Nobody realized it at the time, but it was one of Tilden's amusements, a favor to the crowd, to give lesser opponents a head start. Tilden had whipped Shimizu 6-1, 6-1 in a preliminary tournament the week before Wimbledon, and he certainly had no intention of cheating his Centre Court fans with that same sort of lopsided display. In the final set Big Bill tested himself and kept things going, largely just by hitting backhands and nothing much else.

"The player owes the gallery as much as an actor owes the audience," he wrote once; and Paul Gallico summed it up: "To his opponents it was a contest; with Tilden it was an expression of his own tremendous and overwhelming ego, coupled with feminine vanity." Big Bill never really creamed anybody unless he hated them or was in a particular hurry to get somewhere else.

Certainly he was not ever anxious to hastily depart Centre Court at Wimbledon, and he returned for the championship against Patterson on Saturday, July 3. Big Bill found this date especially felicitous; an obsessive patriot, he noted that, for an American, July 3 was the next best thing to July 4. He further buttressed this omen by somehow obtaining a four-leaf clover that he was assured had once grown under the chair that Abraham Lincoln used to sit in on the White House lawn. And so, with that talisman safely ensconced in his pocket, he set out to become the first American ever to win the Wimbledon men's championship.

Patterson had a strong serve and forehand, but his weakness was an odd corkscrew backhand that he hit sort of inside out. And so, curiously it seemed, Tilden began by playing to Patterson's powerful forehand. The champion ran off the first four games with dispatch and won the set 6-2. But then, as Tilden changed sides for the first time in the second set, he spotted a good friend, the actress Peggy Wood, sitting in the first row with a ticket he had provided her, and he looked straight at Miss Wood, and with a reassuring nod, that kind delivered with lips screwed up in smug confidence, he signaled to her that all was quite well, that it was in the bag, that finally, at the age of twenty-seven, he was about to become the champion of the world.

Miss Wood, of course, had no notion that she would be used as a conduit for history; nor, for that matter, could she understand Tilden's cockiness. He had lost the first set 6-2; he was getting clobbered by the best player in the world. But down the five full decades, and more, that have passed, she cannot forget that expression of his, nor what followed. "Immediately," she says, as if magic were involved, "Bill proceeded to play."

In that instant he had solved Patterson's forehand, and the champion, his strength ravaged, had nothing but his weakness to fall back upon. The primary object in match tennis is to break up the other man's game. "A subtle change came over Patterson's game," the Guardian correspondent wrote in some evident confusion. "Things that looked easy went out, volleys that ought to have been crisply negotiated ended up in the net." Tilden swept the next three sets at his convenience, losing only nine games, and toward the end it was noted for the record that "the Philadelphian made rather an exhibition of his opponent."

Big Bill did not lose another match of any significance anywhere in the world until a knee injury cost him a victory more than six years later. 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 had 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. He ruled the game as much by force of his curious, contradictory, often abrasive personality as by his proficiency. But he was not merely eccentric. He was the greatest irony in sport: to a game that then suffered a "fairy" reputation, Tilden gave a lithe, swashbuckling, athletic image—although he was in fact a homosexual, the only great male athlete we know to have been one.

Alone in the world of athletics, nearly friendless and, it seems, even ashamed of himself, there was seldom any joy for the man, even amidst his greatest tennis triumphs. It's quite likely that in his whole life Tilden never spent a night alone with an adult, man or woman. And his every day was shadowed by the bizarre and melancholy circumstances surrounding a childhood he tried to forget; certainly it is no coincidence that he did not blossom as a champion until just after he discarded the name of his youth.

He had been born on February 10, 1893, and christened William Tatem Tilden Jr., which he came to hate because everyone called him Junior or June. Finally, arbitrarily, around the time of his twenty-fifth birthday, he changed the Junior to the Second, II. That onus officially disposed of, June became Bill and then, even better, Big Bill. He had been introduced to tennis early. It was an upper-class game, and the family he was born into was rich, of ascending social prominence, and even greater civic presence. The family mansion, Overleigh, was located in the wealthy Germantown section of Philadelphia, only a block or so from the Germantown Cricket Club. The Tildens belonged, of course, and the club was indeed to be the site of many Big Bill triumphs, but the family summered at a fashionable Catskill resort, Onteora, and it was there that young June learned the game of tennis, in the last year of the nineteenth century.

The first clear vision of him as a player does not arise, however, until about a decade later, when Tilden was playing, with little distinction, for the team at his small private school, Germantown Academy. This day he was struggling on the court, slugging everything, all cannonballs, when Frank Deacon, one of his younger friends, came by. Even then, as a schoolboy, Tilden was always closest to children years younger than he. At the end of a point, which, typically, Tilden had violently overplayed, hitting way out, Deacon hollered to him in encouragement, "Hey, June, take it easy."

Tilden stopped dead, and with what became a characteristic gesture, he swirled to face the boy, placing his hands on his hips and glaring at him. "Deacon," he snapped, "I'll play my own sweet game."

And so he did, every day of his life. He was the proudest of men and the saddest, pitifully alone and shy, but never so happy as when he brought his armful of rackets into the limelight or walked into a crowded room and contentiously took it over. George Lott, a Davis Cup colleague and a man who actively disliked Tilden, was nonetheless this mesmerized by him: "When he came into the room it was like a bolt of electricity hit the place. Immediately, there was a feeling of awe, as though you were in the presence of royalty. You knew you were in contact with greatness, even if only remotely. The atmosphere became charged, and there was almost a sensation of lightness when he left. You felt completely dominated and breathed a sigh of relief for not having ventured an opinion of any sort."

Tilden himself said, "I can stand crowds only when I am working in front of them, but then I love them." Obviously the crowds and the game were his sex. For a large part of his life, the glory years, all the evidence suggests that he was primarily asexual; it was not until he began to fade as a player and there were not enough crowds to play to that his homosexual proclivities really took over. But ahh, when he was king, he would often appear to trap himself in defeat, as he had against Shimizu, so that he could play the better role, prolonging his afternoon as the cynosure in the sun, prancing and stalking upon his chalked stage, staring at officials, fuming at the crowd, now toying with his opponent, then saluting him grandly, spinning, floating, jumping, playing his own sweet game, reveling in the game.

And yet, for all these excesses of drama and melodrama, his passion for competition was itself even superseded by another higher sense: sportsmanship. Tilden was utterly scrupulous, obsessed with honor, and he would throw points (albeit with grandeur, Pharisee more than Samaritan) if he felt that a linesman had cheated his opponent. Big Bill was the magistrate of every match he played, and the critic as well. "Peach!" he would cry in delight, lauding any opponent who beat him with a good shot. And, if inspired or mad enough at the crowd or at his rival, he would serve out the match by somehow holding five balls in one huge hand and then tossing four of them up, one after another, and pounding out four cannonball aces—bam, bam, bam, bam; 15-30-40game—then throwing the fifth ball away with disdain. That was the style to it. Only the consummate showman would think of the extra ball as the closing fillip to the act.

"He is an artist," Franklin P. Adams wrote at Big Bill's peak. "He is more of an artist than nine-tenths of the artists I know. It is the beauty of the game that Tilden loves; it is the chase always, rather than the quarry."

Further, even more unlike almost all great champions in every sport, whose brilliance is early recognized, early achieved, Tilden was required to make himself great. Very nearly he created himself. Only a few years before he became champion of the world, he could not make the college varsity at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught himself, inspired himself, fashioning a whole new level for the game in the bargain.

Withal, it is probable that the very fact that he was homosexual was largely responsible for the real success he achieved in tennis; he had none elsewhere. Urbane, well-read, a master bridge player, a connoisseur of fine music, he held pretensions to writing and acting as well as tennis, but these gossamer vanities only cost him great amounts of stature and money, and even held him up to mockery. For all his intelligence, tennis was the only venture that June Tilden could ever succeed at, until the day he died in his cramped walk-up room near Hollywood and Vine, where he lived out his tragedy, a penniless ex-con, scorned or forgotten, alone as always, and desperately in need of love from a world that had tolerated him only for its amusement. "He felt things so very deeply," Peggy Wood says. "He was not a frivolous person. And yet, I never saw him with anybody who could have been his confidant. How must it be like that? There must have been so many things deep within him that he could never talk about. I suppose he died of a broken heart." It seems he did.

To the end, in the good times and the bad, he searched for one thing above all: a son. He could not have one, and so he would find one for himself, make one, as he made himself a great player to honor the dead mother he worshipped. But the boys he found, whom he loved and taught, would grow up and put away childish things, which is what any game is, what tennis is, and ultimately, what Big Bill Tilden was. He was the child of his own dreams, always, until the day he died, age sixty, his bags packed, ready once again to leave for a tennis tournament.


Excerpted from Big Bill Tilden by Frank Deford. Copyright © 1976 Frank Deford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Frank Deford is an author, commentator, and senior contributor to Sports Illustrated, which he has been writing for since the early 1960s. In addition, he is a correspondent for HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and a regular Wednesday commentator for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. He has won both an Emmy and a Peabody Award for his broadcasting.

Deford’s 1981 novel Everybody’s All-American was named one of Sports Illustrated’s Top 25 Sports Books of All Time and was later made into a movie directed by Taylor Hackford and starring Dennis Quaid. His memoir Alex: The Life of a Child, chronicling his daughter’s life and battle with cystic fibrosis, was made into a movie starring Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia in 1986. 

In 2012 President Obama honored Deford with the National Humanities Medal for “transforming how we think about sports,” making Deford the first person primarily associated with sports to earn recognition from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has also been awarded the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sportswriting, the W.M. Kiplinger Distinguished Contributions to Journalism Award, and the Associated Press Sports Editors’ Red Smith Award, and has been elected to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters of America Hall of Fame. GQ has called him, simply, “the world’s greatest sportswriter.”

Deford currently resides in New York City and Key West, Florida, with his wife, Carol. They have two grown children.

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