Tilden was born into a wealthy Philadelphia family bereaved by the death of three older siblings. He lost his semi-invalid mother when he was 18 and, even though his father was still alive and maintained a large house staffed with servants, was sent a few houses away to live with a maiden aunt. The loss at 22 of his father and older brother marked him deeply. After several months of deep depression, and with encouragement from his aunt, tennis, which he had taken up starting at age five, became his primary means of recovery. According to his biographer, Frank Deford, because of his early family losses Tilden spent all of his adult life attempting to create a father-son relationship with a long succession of ball boys and youthful tennis protégés, of whom Vinnie Richards was the most noted. In spite of his worldwide travels, Tilden lived at his aunt's house until 1941 when he was 48 years old.
Tilden was a graduate of Peirce College in Philadelphia.
Although Tilden almost never drank, he smoked heavily and disdained what today would be considered a healthy life style for an athlete. For most of his life his diet consisted of three enormous meals a day of steak and potatoes, with, perhaps, the occasional lamb chop.
Tilden was not number one at his prep school Germantown Academy nor even good enough to play on his college team. The shy, self-absorbed, sometimes arrogant young man dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania and began to practice his game against a backboard and he also became a dedicated student of the game. In just three years, he worked his way up the ranks. Prior to 1920 he had won a number of Canadian doubles titles, but had lost to Lindley Murray and "Little Bill" Johnston in straight sets. He won the 1920–1925 U. S. singles championships and is so far the leader holding 6 consecutive U.S. titles and 7 total U.S wins. In the winter of 1919-20 he moved to Rhode Island where, on an indoor court, he devoted himself to remodeling his relatively ineffective backhand into a much more effective one. With this change, he became the world's number one tennis player and the first American to win the Wimbledon singles championship.
In the United States' sports-mad decade of the Roaring Twenties Tilden was one of the six dominant figures of the "Golden Age of Sport", along with Babe Ruth, Howie Morenz, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, and Jack Dempsey.
In the late 1920s the great French players known as the "Four Musketeers" finally wrested the Davis Cup away from Tilden and the United States, as well as his domination of the singles titles at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Tilden had long been at odds with the draconically rigid amateur directors of the United States Lawn Tennis Association about his income derived from newspaper articles about tennis. He won his last major championship at Wimbledon in 1930 at the age of 37 but was no longer able to win titles at will.
In 1931, in need of money, he turned professional and joined the fledgling pro tour, which had begun only in 1927. For the next 15 years, he and a handful of other professionals such as Hans Nüsslein and Karel Koželuh barnstormed across the United States and Europe in a series of one-night stands, with Tilden still the player that people primarily paid to see. Even with greats such as Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, and Don Budge as his opponents, all of them current or recent World No. 1 players, it was often Tilden who ensured the box-office receipts—and who could still hold his own against the much younger players for a first set or even an occasional match.
Tilden thought he reached the apogee of his whole career in 1934 at 41 years old, nevertheless that year he was dominated in the pro ranks by Ellsworth Vines. Both players faced each other at least 60 times in 1934, Tilden winning about 19 matches and Vines 41. American Lawn Tennis reported that on May 17, at tour’s end, Vines led Tilden by 19 matches for the year (Slightly over about fifty matches would have been played.) so a possible win-loss record on May 17 was 16-35 then both players met at least 6 times during the rest of the year (Ray Bowers has listed 5 tournament matches and 1 one-night program) all lost by Tilden. Then both players met at least six times (five times in tournaments and once in one-night indoor program) with Tilden losing all his matches. In 1945 the 52-year old Tilden and his long-time doubles partner Vinnie Richards won the professional doubles championship—they had won the United States amateur title 27 years earlier in 1918.
Tilden coached Germany's tennis team in the 1937 Davis Cup. In the inter-zone finals the U.S. team won after the deciding singles clash between Gottfried von Cramm and Don Budge, a match which has been called "The Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played".
Allison Danzig, the main tennis writer for The New York Times from 1923 through 1968, and the editor of The Fireside Book of Tennis, called Tilden the greatest tennis player he had ever seen. "He could run like a deer," Danzig once told CBS Sports. An extended Danzig encomium to Tilden's tennis appears in the July 11, 1946 issue of The Times, in which he reports on a 1920s-evoking performance in the first two sets of a five set loss by the 53 year old Tilden to Wayne Sabin, at the 1946 Professional Championship at Forest Hills.
In his 1979 autobiography, Jack Kramer, the long-time tennis promoter and great player himself, included Tilden in his list of the 6 greatest players of all time. Kramer began playing tennis with Tilden at age 15 at the Los Angeles Tennis Club (LATC).
Tilden, who was one of the most famous athletes in the world for many years, today is not widely remembered despite his former renown. During his lifetime, however, he was a flamboyant character who was never out of the public eye, acting in both movies and plays as well as playing tennis. He also had two arrests for sexual misbehavior with teenage boys in the late 1940s; these led to incarcerations in the Los Angeles area. He was shunned in public, his name was removed from the alumni files of Penn, and his photos removed from the walls of his home club, the Germantown Cricket Club. In 1950, in spite of his legal record and public disgrace, an Associated Press poll named Bill Tilden the greatest tennis player of the half-century by a wider margin than that given to any athlete in any other sport (310 out of 391 votes).
Tilden was arrested in November 1946 on Sunset Boulevard by the Beverly Hills police and charged with a misdemeanor ("contributing to the delinquency of a minor") for soliciting an underage male, a 14-year-old boy with whom he was having sex in a moving vehicle. Because of his vanity he did not carry his glasses with him and signed a confession without reading it. He was sentenced to a year in prison, but served 7½ months. His five-year parole conditions were so strict they virtually erased all his income that he earned from private lessons. He was arrested again in January 1949, after picking up a 16-year-old hitchhiker who remained anonymous until years later, when he filed a lawsuit claiming he had suffered severe mental, physical and emotional damage from the encounter. The judge sentenced a year on probation violation and let the punishment for the charge run concurrently. Tilden served ten months. In both cases, apparently, he sincerely believed that his celebrity and his longtime friendship with Hollywood names such as Charlie Chaplin were enough to keep him from jail. He therefore defended himself in court in both cases in a far less than vigorous fashion. After his incarceration he was increasingly shunned by the tennis and Hollywood world. He was unable to give lessons at most clubs and even on public courts he had fewer clients. At one point he was invited to play at a prestigious professional tournament being held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel; at the last moment he was told that he could not participate. Chaplin allowed Tilden to use his private court for lessons to help him after the run of legal and financial problems.
According to contemporary George Lott, a player and later tennis coach at DePaul University, and authoritative biographer Frank Deford, Tilden never made advances to players, whether other adults or his pupils. Art Anderson of Burbank, who took lessons from Tilden from the age of eleven and remained a lifelong loyal friend, reported nothing of Tilden's sexual advances “Bill had all the rumors floating around about his sexuality,” Jack Kramer said. Questions remain if Tilden's prosecution was based on the rumors, many published, and heterosexual biases of the time. California did not repeal its sodomy law until 1976. Because he lived in an era when homosexual sex was illegal and was not tolerated socially, some suspect that Tilden was a victim of the homophobic society of the era. More shocking than Tilden's being caught was the revelation that "sports and homosexuality were not mutually exclusive".
Although Tilden had been born to wealth, and earned large sums of money during his long career, particularly in his early years on the pro tour, he spent it lavishly, keeping a suite at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Much of his income went towards financing Broadway shows that he wrote, produced, and starred in. The last part of his life was spent quietly and away from his family, occasionally participating in celebrity tennis matches. He died in Los Angeles, California. He was preparing to leave for the United States Professional Championship tournament in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1953 when he fell dead of a stroke. Tilden is buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Tilden was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1959.
According to Bud Collins, as an amateur (1912–1930) Tilden won 138 of 192 tournaments, lost 28 finals and had a 907–62 match record, a 93.60% winning percentage. Bill Tilden joined professional tennis in 1931, making him then ineligible to compete in the Grand Slams tournaments.
Burial: Ivy Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA. Plot: Section D
IN 1947, AMERICA was shocked by a contradiction of one of its most strongly held prejudices-the idea that great athletes could never be homosexuals. William "Big Bill" Tilden was a national hero, a larger-than-life tennis player who had been the American champion from 1920 to 1925 and a three-time winner at Wimbledon. Along with Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Johnny Weissmuller, Jack Dempsey and Bobby Jones, he was one of the giants of the golden era of American sports. But at the age of fifty-three Tilden was sentenced to five years probation in Los Angeles after pleading guilty to a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a fourteen-year-old boy. "You have been the idol of youngsters all over the world," said the sentencing judge. "It has been a great shock to sports fans to read about your troubles." Later his probation was revoked when the police found him with a seventeen-year-old boy, and Tilden was forced to serve seven and a half months in jail. --Charles Kaiser. The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America (Kindle Locations 831-836). Kindle Edition.
Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy (Hall of Fame Edition) by Frank Deford
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Sportclassic Books (February 2004)
Amazon: Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy
The classic biography of one of the most successful, yet tragic, figures in American sports history.
A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played by Marshall Jon Fisher
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Broadway; 1 edition (April 20, 2010)
Amazon: A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played
Before Federer versus Nadal, before Borg versus McEnroe, the greatest tennis match ever played pitted the dominant Don Budge against the seductively handsome Baron Gottfried von Cramm. This deciding 1937 Davis Cup match, played on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon, was a battle of titans: the world's number one tennis player against the number two; America against Germany; democracy against fascism. For five superhuman sets, the duo’s brilliant shotmaking kept the Centre Court crowd–and the world–spellbound.
But the match’s significance extended well beyond the immaculate grass courts of Wimbledon. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the brink of World War II, one man played for the pride of his country while the other played for his life. Budge, the humble hard-working American who would soon become the first man to win all four Grand Slam titles in the same year, vied to keep the Davis Cup out of the hands of the Nazi regime. On the other side of the net, the immensely popular and elegant von Cramm fought Budge point for point knowing that a loss might precipitate his descent into the living hell being constructed behind barbed wire back home.
Born into an aristocratic family, von Cramm was admired for his devastating good looks as well as his unparalleled sportsmanship. But he harbored a dark secret, one that put him under increasing Gestapo surveillance. And his situation was made even more perilous by his refusal to join the Nazi Party or defend Hitler. Desperately relying on his athletic achievements and the global spotlight to keep him out of the Gestapo’s clutches, his strategy was to keep traveling and keep winning. A Davis Cup victory would make him the toast of Germany. A loss might be catastrophic.
Watching the mesmerizingly intense match from the stands was von Cramm’s mentor and all-time tennis superstar Bill Tilden–a consummate showman whose double life would run in ironic counterpoint to that of his German pupil.
Set at a time when sports and politics were inextricably linked, A Terrible Splendor gives readers a courtside seat on that fateful day, moving gracefully between the tennis match for the ages and the dramatic events leading Germany, Britain, and America into global war. A book like no other in its weaving of social significance and athletic spectacle, this soul-stirring account is ultimately a tribute to the strength of the human spirit.
The Other Side of Silence: Men's Lives & Gay Identities - A Twentieth-Century History by John Loughery
Paperback: 544 pages
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks (June 15, 1999)
Amazon: The Other Side of Silence: Men's Lives & Gay Identities - A Twentieth-Century History
Based on hundreds of interviews, new and classic texts, and little-known archival sources, an award-winning writer offers the first narrative history to consider the multiple meanings of "gay identity" in the whole United States.
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