When Bill Tilden made his first appearance at Wimbledon in 1920, the English had a hard time figuring him out. He was 27 years old and had never won a major tennis championship. Yet he seemed supremely confident of accomplishing something no American male ever had done before—winning the Wimbledon title.
No one could have foreseen that Wimbledon was to inspire Tilden as it has inspired no other player in the history of the game. His artistic temperament, vivid imagination and keen mind found their natural habitat on Wimbledon's historic Centre Court. Tilden was always well aware that he was playing before the most knowledgeable and critical tennis fans in the world at Wimbledon. He knew that they were nodding approval or shaking their heads at his every shot. Tilden responded with a dazzling display of shots, combined with great cunning.
Although the English never considered Tilden conceited, they couldn't decide whether he underrated all his opponents and was unwittingly led into the desperate straits in which he so often found himself, or whether he got in trouble deliberately for the fun of extricating himself. Whatever the explanation, Tilden's daring when in danger captivated them. The gangling Philadelphian, with his jutting chin and boyish enthusiasm, quickly became the "King of the Courts" in England.
In those days the defending champion did not have to play through the tournament but waited for the winner to challenge him for the title. Gerald Patterson of Australia stood by as the defending title-holder in 1920. Tilden had his only close match in the fourth round against A.R.F. Kingscote, a British Davis Cupper. He squeezed by Kingscote in five sets and in the All-Comers' Final defeated Zenzo Shimizu, the diminutive Japanese.
Tilden was extremely nervous when he took the court against Patterson for the Challenge Match. The Australian quickly won the first four games and ran out the set 6-2. Then Tilden took over. Concentrating his fire on Patterson's awkwardly hit backhand, which collapsed under the pressure, Tilden raced through the next three sets with the loss of only nine games.
Tilden's victory was a popular one in England. It was obvious that he loved Wimbledon and everything about it. He actually appeared to enjoy every minute of every match. His enthusiasm was contagious, and the English could hardly wait for him to return to defend his title.
With the confidence gained at Wimbledon, Tilden proceeded to win the U.S. singles championship and all of his Davis Cup matches against the Australians to bring the cup back to America. But when Wimbledon rolled around in June 1921, Tilden was a sick man. Three weeks before the tournament was to begin, he came down with a high fever and a severe attack of boils. His doctor forbade him to play tennis and Tilden was sent to a nursing home. Tilden, however, decided to play. He felt that thousands of people would be disappointed if he didn't defend his Wimbledon title. Brian I. C. Norton, a tough, wiry South African, beat Manuel Alonso, the fleet Spaniard, in a five-set final for the right to meet Tilden.
A line started forming outside Wimbledon at 4 a.m. on the day of the Challenge Round. Only a handful of insiders knew, however, that Tilden was in bad physical shape. Norton started the match by winning the first set 6-4 and followed it with a quick win in the second, 6-2. Then Tilden dug in, playing solely on his nerve. The tennis was not of a high caliber and wild rumors were flying all over the hushed stadium. The most fantastic of these was that Tilden had made a bet that he could spot Norton the first two sets and still beat him.
In the third set Tilden promptly went into a 3-0 lead, and the South African decided to let the set go to concentrate on the next one. In the fourth set Tilden again jumped into a 3-0 lead, and again Norton decided to throw the set to stake all on the fifth and final set. This was a fatal mistake.
Tilden began to sense victory. His play, miraculously, began to improve; Norton's did too. Games went to four-all. Norton then won his service and got to 40-30 (match point) on Tilden's delivery. After a brief exchange, Tilden chopped the ball straight down the sideline. He started to the net to shake hands with Norton, thinking his ball was out. It landed squarely on the line and Norton drove the ball out by inches on a hard-hit cross-court shot. Then Tilden smashed the ball into the net to go down match point again, but the South African knocked the ball out of the court three times in succession to lose the game and his last chance. Tilden quickly ran out the match 7-5.