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American Colossus: Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis

American Colossus: Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis


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Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, and Bill Tilden were the legendary quartet of the “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s. They transformed their respective athletic disciplines and captured the imagination of a nation. The indisputable force behind the emergence of professional tennis as a popular and lucrative sport, Tilden’s on-court accomplishments are nothing short of staggering. The first American‑born player to win Wimbledon and a seven‑time winner of the U.S. singles championship, he was the number 1 ranked player for ten straight years.

A tall, flamboyant player with a striking appearance, Tilden didn’t just play; he performed with a singular style that separated him from other top athletes. Tilden was a showman off the court as well. He appeared in numerous comedies and dramas on both stage and screen and was a Renaissance man who wrote more than two dozen fiction and nonfiction books, including several successful tennis instructions books.

But Tilden had a secret—one he didn’t fully understand himself. After he left competitive tennis in the late 1940s, he faced a lurid fall from grace when he was arrested after an incident involving an underage boy in his car. Tilden served seven months in prison and later attempted to explain his questionable behavior to the public, only to be ostracized from the tennis circuit. Despite his glorious career in tennis, his final years were much constrained and lived amid considerable public shunning.

Tilden’s athletic accomplishments remain, as he is arguably the best American player ever. American Colossus is a thorough account of his life, bringing a much-needed look back at one of the world’s greatest athletes and a person whose story is as relevant as ever.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803288119
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 03/01/2018
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Allen M. Hornblum is a former criminal justice administrator and college professor. He is the author of several books, including The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb and Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg PrisonJohn Newcombe is a former tennis great from Australia who won twenty-six Grand Slam championships, including singles titles in three Wimbledons, two U. S. Opens, and two Australian Opens.

Read an Excerpt


"A Game of Society"

There is no sensation in the sporting world so thoroughly enjoyable to me as that when I meet a tennis ball just right in the very middle of my racquet and smack it.

— William T. Tilden 2nd

The "bombshell announcement on the morning of July 19, 1928," hit the sporting world with the force of a tropical typhoon. In addition to millions of flabbergasted sports fans around the globe, "the people of Paris and France" were particularly hard hit; they were said to be in a "state of shock." As one exasperated observer recounted, "Without warning, without an intimation of any kind, the elaborate structure built by the French Federation ... was wreaked as if hit by a cyclone."

Recriminations and statements of befuddlement and outrage were echoed in far-flung capitals from Brisbane and Tokyo to Stockholm and London. "Incomprehensible," "ridiculous," "utter folly," "beyond understanding" were just a few of the reactions by stunned sports and editorial writers trying to make sense of it all. It was inexplicable that the greatest player in the history of tennis would be prevented from playing in the Davis Cup challenge round against France, the champion nation. And to have such mischief perpetrated by one's own nation was truly mind-boggling.

Newspaper headlines and controversy were certainly no stranger to "Big Bill" Tilden, an iconic figure of the "golden age of sports" and the first American-born player to win the Wimbledon trophy. A transformational figure who popularized the sport, helped propel lawn tennis from exclusive country clubs to public playgrounds, and would one day professionalize the game, he was also a multitalented connoisseur of theatrical drama and classical music, an author of more than two dozen books and hundreds of magazine articles, and a bridge-playing enthusiast of championship caliber. Granted, he could be petulant, tiresomely difficult, and as demanding as an Indian prince, but he was also an athletic talent of Herculean proportions. Now he was being sanctioned for writing articles about what he was best known for and what he knew best. The entire episode was bizarre, but one thing was clear: the old-line oligarchs of the American amateur tennis federation were out to finally level him.

Tilden's greatness, his exceptional prowess at lawn tennis, was universally recognized as the stuff of "genius." Columnists and respected athletic authorities regularly referred to him as "the king of them all," the "absolute monarch of the courts," the "Napoleon of lawn tennis." Only Babe Ruth rivaled him for sheer star power. But the Babe's mythic stature was confined to American shores; Tilden's was international.

Members of the American Davis Cup team practicing in Paris were devastated by the news and spoiling for a fight. Tilden was their hero, their leader; they began to organize a strike. They would refuse to play the host nation.

The French were even more chagrined. Their displeasure quickly escalated to indignation; they had been preparing to defend the Cup — the most cherished team trophy in the world of athletics and the first time a non-English team was defending the trophy — before the earth they stood on was cut out from under them. They had constructed an expensive new tennis stadium — Roland Garros — to show off their team, the pride of France. Now the biggest name in the game was precluded from playing; the financial loss would be tremendous. French players were equally peeved. Defeating the American team without Tilden was no victory at all; where was the honor?

Even some United States Lawn Tennis Association officials were caught off guard and embarrassed by the decision. The sanction and how it was secretly orchestrated offended their sense of fair play and due process. "I hereby tender my resignation as Chairman of the Davis Cup Committee to take effect immediately," said one disgruntled American official.

Unwilling to take a financial bath, not to mention a loss of prestige by hosting a topflight international encounter without the game's greatest player, the French initiated a last-gasp diplomatic offensive. They began to lobby the American ambassador to France for relief. If necessary, they would even go to the White House.

It was all too much for most observers to make sense of. One of the decade's greatest athletes being penalized for writing newspaper articles, tennis players going on strike, high-ranking officials abruptly quitting, diplomatic channels being pursued, and confusion and turmoil seemingly everywhere — one would be hard-pressed to come across another instance of an athlete precipitating such controversy and all-out mayhem. But William T. Tilden 2nd was no run-of-the-mill sportsman. "The Everest of the lawn tennis Himalayas," he was a once-in-a-century athletic wonder who captivated the sports world as assuredly as he dictated his dominance to those who had the audacity to step across the net from him.

Once the broad-shouldered and reed-thin Philadelphian walked on a tennis court and took hold of his weapon of choice, it was as if Merlin's magic wand had been transformed into a racket containing a devilish array of drives, spins, lobs, chops, and drop shots in its arsenal. No one prior to Tilden had ever attempted, much less mastered, such an imposing array of shots. Such athletic excellence and technical superiority were thought by some to be divined by the gods or at the very least fashioned in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. But the truth was far more mundane and conventional. As with other great champions, it starts with a child mesmerized by a particular athletic item emblematic of the game. It was no different for young Tilden.

More like an oddly configured snowshoe than the superlight, aerodynamic tennis rackets of today, the Victorian-era "Pim" captivated "Junior" Tilden like few other objects during his childhood. Though in appearance rather unremarkable and strung with a thick-gauge gut that resembled frayed string, the ancient tennis racket quickly became an item of desire for the youngest member of the Tilden household. Despite its weighing in at nearly sixteen ounces and possessing a swollen, ax-like handle that a child's hand could barely grip, young Tilden fantasized about the wooden contraption the way most children daydreamed about King Arthur's Excalibur. As he would admit many years later of his unrelenting desire, "I coveted it with all my six-year-old soul."

Regrettably, the hefty, unadorned racket belonged to his brother, Herbert, who was seven years older and just beginning to make a name for himself in local lawn tennis circles. Junior could only imagine the joy of one day possessing it. When his father brought home a new model, a "Hackett andAlexander," for his oldest son, Junior pounced on the ragged but beloved Pim. "I snitched it," confessed Tilden unabashedly. "Let me admit the truth. I swiped it without a qualm of conscience, and grabbing my one soiled, corroded and definitely dead tennis ball, strode forth."

The "pinched racket" was the start of a lifelong love affair between a man and his sport. The unlikely marriage of a molly-coddled child and a shabby racket would eventually result in enthusiastic crowds at packed stadiums, front-page newspaper headlines, and friendships with some of the world's most famous celebrities. The union would also culminate in the making of athletic history, as well as the indelible image of one of the most iconic figures in the annals of sport.

The youngest Tilden's stealth attack on his brother's property would be committed at the family's country cottage in the Catskill Mountains. Onteora, New York, was a fashionable mountain retreat for the well-to-do from large northeastern cities desiring a relaxing sanctuary from the sweltering midsummer heat. Until the theft of the racket, Junior Tilden had shown interest only in "artistic things," a creative sensibility "inherited from [his] mother" and one that was "never quite understood by [his] father." A turn-of-the-century art colony approximately three dozen miles south of Albany and about a dozen or so west of the Hudson, Onteora (an Indian word for "mountain of the sky"), according to Tilden, "was a place that stimulated the imagination and spurred love of beauty in one who had any artistic leanings." The upscale, arty atmosphere became a magnet for a host of celebrated writers, actors, musicians, and other artistic performers.

The chic mountain colony was home to Maude Adams of Peter Pan fame and thought to be the highest-paid stage performer in America at the dawn of the twentieth century; Madame Louise Homer of the Metropolitan Opera; John Alexander, the portrait painter; Mary Knight Wood, the songwriter; Ruth McHenry Stuart, the author; and General Custer's widow. Mark Twain was often a guest at Onteora. It was not unusual for Junior Tilden to be playing with other children or off on a solitary hike up Onteora Mountain and come upon some celebrated artist painting a bucolic scene of rich "reds, browns, and golds of autumn leaves just coming from the green summer foliage" or hear the "deep rich contralto" of a prominent opera performer practicing her vocal exercises.

The summer colony was abundant with creative talent. And Tilden, like most children, was encouraged to partake of Onteora Club's many artistic endeavors. He would make his "first dramatic experience" in Buttons, an amateur play directed by the great Maude Adams. But much to his family's surprise and occasional consternation, their youngest son's interest soon centered on an old racket and several oxygen-depleted tennis balls.

To his parents' dismay, their six-year-old had discovered the walls of the family's mountain house were a perfect surface for imitating the strokes of the great tennis players of the day. A long porch on one side and a "driveway, large, level, and with a nice shale surface, provided an excellent court," Tilden would one day write. And the side of the house presented "a wonderful backboard for practice."

And so began a great player's athletic calling, though, as Tilden would later lament, his "tennis career almost ended at the start." Some of his overly enthusiastic swipes at the ball had more pace than accuracy, and very early on "one beautiful shot," he came to admit, "went speeding directly at the window of my father's den." The result, according to the remorseful perpetrator, was "a wealth of shattered window pane over my father as he lay enjoying his afternoon siesta." A terrible "moment of awful hush" followed, something like the silence that "precedes an earthquake or the braking of a monsoon." He looked for a place to hide, but the expansive driveway allowed for none.

His father's cry of "Junior" — a familial but disliked moniker he would grow to detest — rang down like thunder from the heavens, a clear sign the gods had taken a disapproving stance on his latest passion. Painfully recalling the incident many years later, Tilden soberly wrote, "I came, he saw, and he conquered."

Junior was given a stern lecture, the offending instrument confiscated, and he was forbidden from playing the game ever again. More than a month would pass before an alliance with his mother garnered enough family clout for him "to once more reach the driveway and the side of the house with racket in hand." During the coming days, months, and years, young Tilden would spend countless hours banging tennis balls off the wall of his mountain home or any other flat surface he came upon in hopes of emulating his older brother's skill and success. Many windowpanes were smashed in the process — Tilden called "practicing strokes and breaking windows a delightful pastime" — but it was the cost of learning the game. "Out of the maze of shattered windows and stern rebukes," he would one day proudly write, "emerged what later became my Cannonball and American Twist serves," not to mention a half-dozen other strokes that Tilden mastered.

Progress was noted early on. At the tender age of seven Tilden won the 1901 fifteen-and-under Junior Boys Championship at Onteora. His competitors were several years older and no slouches on the court. In fact, Tilden was down 6–1, 5–0 in the final before pulling off a remarkable comeback, a dramatic ashes-to-garland turnaround he would go on to perfect and repeatedly demonstrate throughout his amateur and professional career. Though rather modest in stature, the two-inch pewter cup with the inscription "Onteora Club, Boys Singles, 1901" was as cherished as if it was the Wimbledon Championship Trophy.

His older brother, Herbert, however, was unimpressed. "Aw yer yellow," barked his brother. "You never ought to have come close to gettin' licked." At the time Junior was wounded by his brother's sneering wisecrack and thought him cruel, but would later admit, "He pricked the bubble of my swelled head." The brotherly scolding "gave me the chance to be a real tennis player."

There is no record of his parents' thoughts on their youngest son's first athletic triumph. No doubt they were proud of his success, but they also may have been a bit surprised. Junior had never shown a propensity for great physical achievement. Moreover, any indication of grit and fortitude was an unexpected blessing. The Tilden family had already been severely scarred; just the act of surviving childhood was a notable accomplishment in the Tilden household.

As the Tilden family gathered around the table for their Thanksgiving meal in 1884, they had much to give thanks for. They were healthy, increasingly prosperous, and growing in number. It was a joyful and optimistic time. Despite this comforting family portrait, however, it would be their last Thanksgiving together. In fact, the majority of them would not make it to Christmas. A shadow had fallen over the Tilden home. Death would strike quickly.

Just a few days after the holiday Willamina Tatem Tilden, the youngest of William and Selina Tilden's three children, and not yet a year and a half old, died. Several days later Elizabeth, the oldest, came down with a terrible headache, sore throat, swollen neck, and escalating fever — once again the dreaded signs of diphtheria. By the ninth of December Elizabeth, who had just turned four, was dead. On the fifteenth, less than a week later, Harry Bower, not yet three and the Tildens' only son, would be claimed by the same infectious disease that was infamous for aggressively steamrollering through homes with young children. Philadelphia, like New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other big cities before the discovery of an effective antitoxin, was ripe for recurring waves of diphtheria. Deadly epidemics had become commonplace; even upscale families like the Tildens were impacted. Ironically, it would be a Philadelphia company in the mid-1890s that would manufacture the first antitoxin in the United States. But it would arrive too late for the three Tilden children. Their parents would escape the carnage — at least physically — but their three beautiful and joyous children now resided in a quickly growing family plot at Ivy Hill Cemetery.

It is difficult to imagine the psychological trauma visited upon William and Selina Tilden after losing three precious children in little more than a fortnight. The pain, the indescribable loneliness, the deathly silence in a household that once bubbled with laughter and joy ... but the Tildens — certainly Mr. Tilden — were made of sterner stuff and persevered. In fact, one could even argue the suddenly childless couple flourished as they struggled to rebuild their shattered lives.

Said to have a "commanding appearance" and an assured, competent manner, William Tatem Tilden was born in St. George, Delaware, a small town nestled along the banks of the Delaware River and the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal in 1855. His father, Edwin Marmaduke Tilden, was a prominent New Castle County physician and could trace his lineage back to the Middle Ages and British nobility. Tyldens were said to be friends of Henry II, and at least one, Sir Richard Tylden, was "Seneschal to Hugh de Lacy, Constable of Chester ... and afterwards accompanied Coeur de Lion to the Holy Land and fought under him at Ascalon in A.D. 1190." The large Tylden clan held manors in a half-dozen English towns and were especially prominent in Kent. The first member of the family to set foot in the New World was Nathaniel Tilden in 1634. A former mayor of Tenterden, England, he decided to move his large brood, including a wife and seven children plus an equal number of servants, to the new Massachusetts Bay Colony. They eventually settled in Scituate. It was also about this time that the change from y to i in the family name was made.

Over the years the Tilden clan gravitated to different parts of North America. One branch fled to Canada during the war for independence and ultimately became the equivalent of Hertz in the rent-a-car business north of the border. Another branch settled in New York and produced Samuel Tilden, a prosperous lawyer, Tammany Hall corruption fighter, and well-thought-of governor. Best known for being cheated out of the 1876 presidential election, Tilden settled quietly in his Greystone Estate in Yonkers and left a good part of his personal fortune to the construction of New York City's impressive free public library on Fifth Avenue.


Excerpted from "American Colossus"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Allen M. Hornblum.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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.

Table of Contents

Foreword by John Newcombe
Part 1. The Struggle for the Top
1. “A Game of Society”
2. “A Useless Kid Who Would Never Be Worth Anything”
3. “Always Keep Mentally Alert”
Part 2. A Champion’s Reign
4. “A Year of Living Triumphantly”
5. “You Hit Too Hard”
6. “No Ordinary Man”
7. “The Boss of All Tennis Players”
8. “Evil Influence”
9. “The Greatest Wizard the Game Has Known”
Part 3. A Foreign Challenge
10. “Three against One”
11. “Decidedly Unlike Tilden”
12. “Tilden Has Been a Stormy Petrel”
Part 4. From Professional Success to Villain
13. “A Burning Affection for the Game”
14. “Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor”

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