There must be one moment, an instant, when genius is first realized. Almost never can that moment be perceived, and it passes unnoticed, but with Big Bill Tilden it is marked, forever frozen in time.
It occurred during the Wimbledon finals in 1920, when Tilden, who had never won a major championship, was opposing the defender, Gerald Patterson of Australia, the No. 1 player in the world. Patterson had a strong serve and forehand but was weak with a corkscrew backhand, and it seemed curious when Tilden began by playing to Patterson's forehand. The champion ran off the first four games and the set 6-2. But then, as the players changed sides for the first time in the second set, Tilden spotted his friend, the actress Peggy Wood, sitting in the first row. He looked straight at her and, with a reassuring nod, the kind delivered with lips screwed up in smug confidence, he signaled to her that all was well, that it had all come together at last, that finally, at the age of 27, he would be the next champion of the world.
Miss Wood had no notion that she was being used as a witness, but more than 50 years later she still cannot forget Tilden's expression, nor what followed. "Immediately," she says, as if magic were involved, "Bill began to play." He had solved Patterson's forehand, and the champion had nothing but weakness to fall back on. "A subtle change came over Patterson's game," the London Times correspondent wrote in evident confusion. "Things that looked easy went out." Tilden swept the next three sets, losing only nine games, and toward the end, the Times noted, he "made rather an exhibition of his opponent."
Big Bill did not lose another match of any significance anywhere in the world until a bad knee cost him a victory more than six years later. During this time he won every singles match he played at Forest Hills and Wimbledon and in the Davis Cup. For his whole career, he won seven U.S. titles—six in a row—and three at Wimbledon and led his country to seven straight Davis Cup titles (his Challenge Round singles record was 16-4). He liked to disparage himself as a doubles player, but, in fact, he won five U.S. titles with three different partners (one a 15-year-old boy).
January 13, 1975
No man ever bestrode his sport as Tilden did during those years. It was not just that he could not be beaten, it was as if he had invented the game of tennis. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, Red Grange and the other fabled athletes of the times stood at the top of more popular sports, 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, overbearing personality as by his proficiency. But he was not merely eccentric, he was the greatest irony in sport: to a game that suffered a "sissy" reputation he gave a swashbuckling, virile, athletic image, although he was, in fact, a homosexual, the only great athlete we know to have been one.
He was the proudest of men and the saddest, pitifully alone and shy, but never so happy as when he carried his rackets into the limelight or walked into a room and took it over. He often lost first sets and appeared to trap himself in defeat so that he could prolong his afternoon, the center of all attention, prancing and stalking upon his chalked stage, staring at officials, fuming at the crowd, toying with his opponent, playing the game and reveling in it.
An utterly scrupulous sportsman, obsessed with honor, he would throw points with grandeur if he felt a linesman had cheated the other player—and would become enraged if he was not paid in kind when he thought the point was owed him. "Peach!" he would cry in delight, saluting an opponent who made a good shot. And if inspired, or mad enough at his rival or the crowd, he would serve out the match by picking up five balls in one hand, pounding out four aces and then throwing the fifth ball away in disdain. "He is an artist," Franklin P. Adams wrote. "He is more of an artist than nine-tenths of the artists I know."
More than any other champion of any time, Tilden made himself great. Only a few years before he reached the pinnacle, he was unable to make his college team at Penn.
Highborn, wealthy, well-read, an accomplished bridge player, a connoisseur of fine music, he considered himself a writer and actor as well, but these vanities merely cost him great amounts of money and held him up to mockery. For all his intelligence, tennis was the only venture at which Bill Tilden could ever succeed until the day he died at age 60 in his walk-up room near Hollywood and Vine, a penniless excon, scorned or forgotten, and alone, as always. He died, it seems, of a broken heart.
To the end, through the good times and bad, he searched for one thing above all: a son. He could not have one, and so he would find one, make one, as he made himself a great player in tribute to the dead mother he worshiped. But the boys he found, whom he loved and taught, would grow up and put away childish things, which is what a game is, what tennis is and, ultimately, what Bill Tilden was.
Tilden was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 10, 1893 mm and christened William Tatem Tilden Jr., a name he hated because everybody called him Junior or June. Around his 25th birthday he changed the Jr. to II. He learned tennis at the age of seven at the family summer home in the Catskills, but the first clear vision of him as a player does not arise until a decade later when he was playing for Germantown Academy. Even at this small private school Tilden was not good enough to be No. 1. One day he was struggling—slugging everything—when Frank Deacon, one of his young friends, came by. Even then all of Tilden's friends were younger than he. At the end of a point, Deacon called in encouragement, "Hey, June, take it easy."
Tilden stopped dead and, with what became a characteristic gesture, he whirled to face the boy, put his hands on his hips and glared at him. "Deacon," he said, "I'll play my own sweet game."
And so he did, every day of his life. "I can stand crowds only when I am working in front of them," he wrote, "but then I love them." The crowds and the game may have been substitutes for sex. For a large part of his life, all the evidence suggests, he was primarily asexual; it was not until he began to fade as an athlete that his homosexual proclivities really took over. Throughout his career many tennis people knew the truth (the United States Lawn Tennis Association shuddered that it would out), but homosexuality was a taboo subject then, and it was kept from the public.
Glaring at a linesman, as he had at young Frank Deacon, Tilden certainly could appear swishy—"Who is this fruit?" Ty Cobb is supposed to have said the first time he saw Tilden—but all effeminacy vanished once he started playing. Tilden always minced about far more in the theater than on the court, and questioning line calls was, indisputably, theater to him.
Playing, he moved with a natural grace that was not unlike dancing, an activity he also had a talent for. Slim, double-jointed, with long arms and legs, Tilden had a remarkably functional athletic build. The boxing coach at Yale once tried to get him to take up the sport, marveling that he had "the most amazing footwork I've ever seen." He had wide, clothes-hanger shoulders and thin hips; he stood just over 6'1" and weighed only 155. But Tilden worked at the illusion of size—Big Bill!—and almost all of his living contemporaries still refer to him as having been 6'3" or 6'4". They are amazed to learn the truth.
At a time when men wore hats, Tilden went uncovered. He wanted to be recognized, and he was, almost universally, abroad as well as in the U.S. He was the personification of tennis for two full decades, even long past his flower. As late as 1941, when Tilden was 48, a tour with Don Budge, then at the peak of his game, was arranged only because Tilden could serve as his opponent.
While Tilden was no match for the much younger Budge on those grueling one-night stands, he could play with anybody for a set right up until he died. During World War II, when Tilden was 50, Gardnar Mulloy organized a tennis exhibition for the Navy. Mulloy was to play Ted Schroeder, the Forest Hills champion, while Tilden, for old time's sake, was scheduled to play a nobody in the preliminary. "Let me play Schroeder," Tilden said to Mulloy.
Mulloy demurred. He was not anxious to see the old guy embarrassed by the world's amateur champion, but Tilden persisted, so Mulloy finally gave in. Tilden went out and pulverized Schroeder 6-2, 6-2.
"How did you do that, Bill?" Mulloy asked, amazed.
"I never lose to people I hate," Tilden snapped, and then he turned and walked off.
Big Bill was a jumble of contradictions. Far from being the homosexual dandy, he was a sloppy dresser, wearing cheap dark suits that were always formless and often dirty. All his life he was forgetful when it came to getting things cleaned, including himself, and since he had a compulsion about not appearing nude in the locker room—men who played with him for years never saw him undraped—it was difficult for him to shower even when he remembered to.
He trained, as he lived, strictly by his own peremptory rules. For instance, he could not abide soft drinks, so he declared that they caused gas and cut your wind. Yet he drank potfuls of burning hot coffee, and for six months a year, most years, he chain-smoked. Since he enjoyed cigarettes, he announced that they had no effect whatsoever on wind. Even though he dined out almost every day of his adult life, he ate, as he dressed, prosaically. Such dishes as fish and chicken were too exotic for Tilden, so it was steak, meal after meal, with a barrel of coffee, fruit salad, a mound of potatoes, a green vegetable, a large salad and an even larger portion of ice cream. He was mad about ice cream. Often he would devour such a meal an hour or so before he played, explaining that players need "fuel" for long matches. He just played his own sweet game.
While gluttony and tobacco were most acceptable, Tilden was apoplectic on the subject of liquor. Both his father and an older brother, Herbert, whom he idolized, liked to have a few with the boys and, despite little evidence (almost none in Herbert's case) that drinking had had anything to do with their deaths, Tilden became convinced that it had played a part, and he not only was a teetotaler but was capable of delivering harangues on the subject.
In his fiction, the evils of demon rum are one of a set of recurring themes. Glory's Net, a novel published in 1930, is Tilden's most personal document and, sure enough, the tennis champion hero, David Cooper, sees his marriage and career start to crumble because of an occasional highball. Worse, his younger brother Billy, who is "a little fresh but not a bit evil-minded as kids go today...not a consistent necker," accepts a drink at a "queer little cafe in Montmartre." Mary, David's soupy small-town wife, whom he met at a church picnic, says, "Oh Billy, you mustn't touch liquor. Look what it does to David." Happily, David at last perceives the folly of his ways. "A fellow who drinks is a damn fool," David tells Billy, "and believe me, I know."
This world of extremes, of all right or all wrong, extended to people as well as habits. Those whom Tilden loved were lavished with gifts and devotion; he never had any regard for money and was an uncommonly generous man, wholly taken by the few close relationships his arrogant, dominant personality permitted. Frank Hunter, his doubles partner for many years, was perhaps the only contemporary male whom Tilden was ever close to, and they made an odd couple. Hunter, a New York liquor executive, was something of a bounder, and while Tilden regularly hectored him for chasing women and drinking, he would permit no one else to criticize Hunter. He and Hunter called themselves "The Smartys" and if Tilden got annoyed at Hunter, he would say, "Smarty, you give me that indescribable irk"—driving the other players in the locker room up the wall.
The extent of Tilden's devotion to principle and his friend were revealed in 1927 when his favorite villain, the USLTA, made the mistake of using Hunter to cross Tilden. Led by its majordomo, Julian (Mike) Myrick, the USLTA ordered U.S. Davis Cup Captain Chuck Garland to use Dick Williams and Tilden in the Challenge Round doubles against the French, notwithstanding the fact that Tilden and Hunter were Wimbledon champions and clearly the class doubles team of the country. When Tilden learned of the decision on the morning of the match, he replied that he would play with Hunter or not at all. "Mr. Tilden, you will follow instructions," he was ordered.
"Gentlemen," Tilden announced, "I will be playing bridge, and when you have decided to name Mr. Hunter as my partner, come and inform me."
Periodically, as the time for the match drew nearer, the USLTA officials would approach the card table, with increasing timidity. At last, desperate, they pleaded with him. "You're interrupting our game," Tilden replied. The crowd was already settling into its seats when the USLTA finally gave in and told him he could play with Hunter. "Fine," said Tilden, "I'll dress as soon as we finish this rubber." He and Hunter won in five sets.
Big Bill played bridge most days of his life, often at the club where he was appearing in a tennis tournament. Without family, friends or business, he made the clubs his home. He would show up at 10 in the morning for a late afternoon match, and spend the day at the bridge table or on the courts, practicing or helping young boys. At times, given the slightest encouragement, he would sit and discourse—decree, rather—on tennis. As late as 1914 there were only two teaching professionals in the U.S., and there was simply no question, certainly none in Tilden's mind, that he was not only the best player the world had ever known but the supreme authority as well.
He made a science of the game, mastered every stroke, conceived every stratagem. He could hold forth for an hour or more on how a ball spun. The popular image of his style that still survives, that he was merely a cannonball server pounding away, is completely at variance with the truth. Tilden had three different serves, as he had three different versions of just about every stroke, and in his prime he would employ the cannonball just once or twice a game. It was only when he had aged and had to use the cannonball more often, so he could obtain quick service wins and have energy left for breaking serve, that Rene Lacoste finally, memorably, beat him. Even then, in 1926, there was an extenuating circumstance: Tilden tore a cartilage in his knee during the match. It was not until the next year, when he was 34, that the Musketeers—Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon and Lacoste—could fairly deal with him and the U.S. Davis Cup team.
Lacoste, the Crocodile, tracked Big Bill for years, keeping careful book on his every stroke, and he best comprehended Tilden's compelling authority. "He seems to exercise a strange fascination over his opponents as well as his spectators," Lacoste wrote. "Even when he is beaten, Tilden always leaves an impression on the public mind that he is superior to the victor."
Tilden attained his preeminence despite a most ordinary, even desultory, beginning. As late as age 20, when modern champions are already at the threshold of greatness, Tilden could not make the sixth and last singles spot on a very average Penn varsity. As a sophomore he was trounced 6-1, 6-3 in the NCAA qualifying round. Dr. Carl Fischer, one of Tilden's earliest protégés, knew him well during this period. "If you had asked me in 1916-17 if I thought Bill Tilden would ever be national champion, I would have said, 'Whatever would make you ask me a question like that?' " But, astonishingly, he was undisputed champion of the world only three years later.
How did it happen? Well, for one thing, he was at loose ends. He had no family and by then he knew he had no prospect of one. Nor, he realized, had he any future in his first love, music. But he had an inheritance, and stirring in him was a passion for tennis, to master the game and to contribute to it. Years later he wrote with disdain about the tennis he knew as a child: "They played with an air of elegance—a peculiar courtly grace that seemed to rob the game of its thrills.... There was a sort of inhumanity about it [and] it annoyed me.... I believed the game deserved something more vital and fundamental."
"He suddenly determined to be a good tennis player," Carl Fischer says, "but I'm sure he had no concern for anything like the world championship as such. It was the obvious end product, but not the intentional one. Make no mistake, though, that but for this incredible determination, you never would have heard of Bill Tilden. Nobody ever worked so hard at anything as he did at tennis."
Tilden went about building his game piece by piece, almost as a child tries to collect every single bubble-gum card in the set. By 1918, while he served in the ambulance corps in Pittsburgh during World War I and when many of the best players were still overseas, he was good enough to make the finals at Forest Hills, although he lost to Lindsay Murray. The next year he reached the finals again, this time against Little Bill Johnston, the top U.S. player, who was supposed to weigh 125 or 130, but who came in as low as 103 after one match. With a magnificent Western-grip forehand, Johnston pounded Tilden's backhand and routed him in straight sets. The backhand was Big Bill's Achilles' heel; it was a lovely slice but he could not attack with it.
Undismayed, Tilden went to Providence that winter of 1919-20 and lived with the family of Arnold Jones, another of his protégés. Jones' father, an insurance executive, had one of the few indoor courts in the world, and he provided Tilden with the ostensible job of selling policies for Equitable while Bill really earned his keep by working out with young Arnold. Tilden concentrated on his own backhand, hitting hard drives, one after another, all day, every day, all winter. The next summer Tilden beat Patterson at Wimbledon, Little Bill at Forest Hills and stood at the summit, quite possibly in command of the finest and most complete game that any man in any sport has ever possessed.
So, as the Roaring Twenties exploded upon America, tennis had its colossus to go with the Sultan of Swat, the Manassa Mauler and all the rest. Tilden was a worldwide celebrity, visiting President Harding, playing bridge with Bernard Baruch and tennis with the Duke of York, going backstage at the Met to see Mary Garden, lavishing $400 worth of flowers on Pola Negri for an opening night, cavorting in Hollywood with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Big Bill would have been insulted if any promoter had tried to pay him off under the table, but he expected hotel suites and train compartments and favors for his friends. "He traveled like an Indian prince," says Al Laney, who wrote tennis for the New York Herald-Tribune. He took to signing autographs "Tilden," and if crowds displeased him, he would threaten to leave the court, which he did at least twice.
He took a suite at the Algonquin, where he could be surrounded by actors, whom he idolized, and then he would forget to check out when he left on long trips and would run up huge bills. He picked up every check, put as much money as thought into presents, and invested the rest of his inheritance in a number of plays and movies, most of them starring himself and all of them flops. Once Tilden played Dracula on Broadway, but even in that role he could not stop being anyone but William Tatem Tilden IT. Another problem on the stage was that he felt obliged to learn every part and would frequently mouth the lines being said to him. He instructed photographers how to take his picture, writers how to write and tournament directors what players to invite. He began to speak English with a slight British accent and, soon thereafter, French with a slight German accent.
George Lott, a younger player who despised Tilden and called him Tillie, says, "When Tillie came into a room, it was like a bolt of electricity hit the place. You had the feeling you were in the presence of royalty, and you breathed a sigh of relief when he left for not having ventured any opinions against his."
Tilden believed that he was an actor whose stage was the court, so he would embroil himself in controversy and play the villain to sustain the crowd's interest in his one-sided matches. For amusement, he would play the same style as his opponent: hitting only ground strokes with a baseline player, trading chip shots with a touch artist. When he met Little Bill in the quarterfinals of the 1921 U.S. Nationals, he was irritated because everyone was claiming he had won the year before only because of his big serve. "I'm going to see what I can do without aces," he announced, and whipped Little Bill by trading forehand drives.
In the 1922 finals, the most notable Big Bill-Little Bill confrontation, Johnston was ahead two sets to love and then two sets to one and 3-0 in the fourth. At the crossover, Mike Myrick of the USLTA could not contain his glee. "Well, Bill, it's been a great match," he said smugly.
"It's damn well going to be a great match," Tilden snapped back and he went out and won the next six games and then the fifth set. In the locker room Little Bill was shattered.
A few weeks later Tilden scratched the middle finger of his racket hand on a rusty fence and gangrene set in. He almost lost the whole arm, and he did lose nearly half of the finger. It affected the way he hit almost every stroke, and the stump pained him periodically for the rest of his life, often requiring him to shake hands left-handed, but he adjusted to the loss and followed it with his greatest years. Once he won 57 straight games.
In 1924 Johnston girded himself for one more challenge at Forest Hills and got to the finals without losing a set. By contrast, Tilden had become even more embroiled in various theatrical adventures and looked off form. "Billy's really out to get you," someone said to Tilden after he squeaked by Vinnie Richards in the semis.
"So I've heard," he replied.
"There's a lot of money bet around against you."
"I've heard that, too," Tilden said grimly. Now he was angry because it was being bandied about that he could only beat Little Bill on stamina.
So the next day Big Bill came into the warmup slamming every ball. Little Bill never knew what hit him. Tilden won the first five games, and finished off the match 6-1, 9-7, 6-2.
But along with this spectacular showman and player, this international celebrity, there was at all times another person, this child. At the height of his powers Tilden would return to Philadelphia for months at a time and retreat to his third-floor room in the row house in Germantown where he lived for 25 years with two maiden ladies, his aunt and an older cousin. There, by the hour, he would sit and listen to his music, classical and operatic. "If I had to give up tennis or music," he said, "I would give up tennis."
He also coached tennis, at Germantown Academy one year and at Penn for another, and with his teen-age protégés he would take off on fall and spring weekends in his flashy black Marmon roadster and play small-town exhibitions. He never asked for any money; he just wanted the chance to be with his son figures—players like Vinnie Richards, Carl Fischer, Sandy Wiener, Don Strachan, Junior Coen. People now shake their heads or smirk whenever they hear reference to Tilden and little boys, but, in fact, his paternal instincts overwhelmed any sexual intentions. He never seems to have made advances to his pupils, whom he invariably referred to, each in turn, as "my heir" or "my successor."
"Life would revolve around the friends at that time. He never looked beyond a day ahead or back past 1919, either," says Junior Coen, now a Kansas City investment broker. "He took me and these other little kids and helped us in order to get our comradeship. God knows, everyone needs some friends. Then he moved on, discarded us like products, so to speak, when we could serve no more useful purpose in his life. When I look back, I question whether Bill ever had a real friend."
Increasingly, Tilden became more dogmatic, more set in his ways and in his opinions. His was not a real world anymore. "You see, Bill wanted everything to be perfect," says Sandy Wiener, now a retired Detroit executive. In Tilden's tennis fiction, players were faced more often with moral dilemmas than with balky forehands. (Typically: "Had the umpire seen? He turned away with bated breath. He knew by all the ethics of the game he should speak and admit he had touched the net, and yet....")
His nephew and namesake, William Tilden III, a New York financial executive, says, "Uncle Bill's problem was that he never grew up. He always saw everything in black and white, and he felt down in his heart that people who were wrong deserved to be punished."
Curiously, when it came to evaluating players he was often much too generous. Cochet was taciturn and somewhat lazy, but he could hit the ball early, on the rise, and for that Tilden came to vastly overrate him and even to play him tentatively. Many times he graciously said that the best he ever played was in a loss to Lacoste, suggesting that his very best was surpassed by another man's.
Lacoste and then Cochet defeated Tilden in 1926 after he seriously injured his knee. But the next year they beat him four more times, all in close, even disputed, matches, but proving that at age 34 he was at last vulnerable. That fall of 1927, after Tilden and Hunter put the U.S. ahead of the French 2-1 in the Challenge Round at the Germantown Cricket Club, Tilden met Lacoste in the fourth match. Cochet had carried Big Bill to four sets two days before and Borotra and Brugnon, lobbing, prolonging every rally from the baseline, had made Tilden go five sets in the doubles the previous day. The picadors had done their job, and Lacoste was ready to devour Tilden, suddenly grown old, in the final match. Tilden-Lacoste was for the cup. Big Bill was 34, the Crocodile 23 and Tilden knew he had to win quickly, if at all.
He came out firing the hard one, which is what the Musketeers wanted. Suzanne Lenglen, the Maid Marvel, had told them, "If you don't make him use that cannonball, he'll be 60 before you beat him." Lacoste set out to keep everything in play. "The monotonous regularity with which that unsmiling, drab, almost dull, man returned the best I could hit...often filled me with a wild desire to throw my racket at him," Tilden wrote later. In the first set Lacoste did not hit a single winner, but he won it 6-3, as Tilden aimed for the lines and rushed the net. The American did win the second set 6-4, but Lacoste closed out a tiring old man from there.
There were 15,186 people jammed into Germantown. Although it was his home club, Tilden had generally not been the spectators' favorite there once he had established his superiority. But now, as he strode from the court, head bowed, alone in defeat, the people began to rise and cheer him Many began to cry for him. Tilden, totally unfamiliar with this response, was, for once, at a loss as an actor. At last he thought to raise his hands above his head, like a boxing champ, and received another tumultuous roar.
Lacoste was so emotionally spent by the whole experience, by the fulfillment of his great quest, that when he watched the final match, sitting with Tilden in hot sunshine, he wore two sweaters and an overcoat against a nervous chill. Johnston was making his last major appearance, and he was no match for the young, indefatigable Cochet. "God bless you, Little Bill," a woman called down near the end to the pitiful tiny figure, and people began to cry again. The cup had passed abroad after seven years. "At Philadelphia," Lacoste explained to the French people upon his triumphant return, "Tilden could not be beaten by one player; he was beaten by a team."
Tilden was to win Forest Hills again, in 1929, and Wimbledon the following July, at age 37, but his final great amateur match, in a sense his most amazing victory of all, came under the most exceptional circumstances in the spring of 1928 in the first French defense of the cup. The stadium at Roland Garros had been constructed specifically as a place where people could watch the Musketeers take on Tilden. Then, just days before the match, with the money in the till, the USLTA decided that since the Americans had no chance, now was the time to get Tilden.
Before he became champion Tilden had been a reporter for the Philadelphia Ledger, covering sports and theater. On forms, under "occupation," he would list himself as a newspaperman. All during the '20s, as the USLTA bristled, he was paid to write tennis columns. Now the USLTA invoked the spirit of pure amateurism and banned the unchaste Tilden.
Not only did the other members of the U.S. team rush to cable columns for their newspapers, but the story was Page One in Europe and the U.S. Franco-American relations were threatened. Prodded by President Coolidge, the U.S. ambassador to France, Myron Herrick, ironed out a deal which allowed the French to see Big Bill by delaying his suspension until Forest Hills.
Tilden did not know about this. Furious at his ban but glorying in his new role as a certified international martyr, delivering impassioned speeches to a grateful world press, Tilden was utterly flabbergasted when the Ambassador rose at the luncheon the day before the matches and announced, "Mr. Tilden is going to play." He rushed out to the courts with Junior Coen and practiced for the first time in days. "He was practically hysterical," Coen says. "He couldn't hit a damn thing so, finally, he just stormed off."
Tilden drew Lacoste in the opening match and was posted a 2 to 1 underdog. Lacoste had won their previous four meetings and now he had Tilden on his home court, before a manic Gallic crowd and a swirling wind. Lacoste won the first set 6-1, and it looked like a breeze for the Frenchman. But then Tilden threw his big game out the window and started slicing every ball. As steady as Lacoste was, Tilden outsteadied him. Each ball Lacoste hit came back, spinning like a Frisbee. Suddenly, Lacoste found himself playing a better Lacoste. On the slow clay, teetering toward exhaustion, the old man won in five sets. Lott was so excited he jumped out of the stands and lost a bracelet he had just bought for his girl. To this day in awe of what he saw, he calls it "a display of versatility that has never been equalled."
In the locker room Lacoste slumped, confused and despairing, and cried. "Two years ago I knew at last how to beat him," he said. "Now, on my own court, he beats me. I never knew how the ball would come off the racket, he concealed it so. I had to wait to see how much it was spinning, and sometimes it didn't spin at all. Is he not the greatest player of them all?"
Despite having vowed often that he would never turn pro, Tilden signed in 1931, and promptly—typically—became the most ardent professional in the world. The Tilden Tennis Tour that first year was little more than his own triumphal procession, and in succeeding years the amateur champions—Cochet, Vines, Perry—were shoved out on the stage, mere ingenues, to appear with the old idol. It seems to have been largely incidental who won or lost; the point was to show people Big Bill.
The enterprise was profitable, even if Tilden was an atrocious businessman; he was so generous that he often gave back guarantees to promoters whose matches did not draw so well. Nonetheless, although Tilden grossed $100,000 or so in Depression dollars for several years in the '30s, he was running into financial problems by the end of the decade. His father's inheritance, often referred to as a fortune, was in fact no more than $80,000. By now, Tilden's aunt had died and his cousin had moved to England, so he had lost his room, as well as most ties to Germantown. He continued to spend profligately and invest whimsically. In 1939 he came back to the U.S. only after Vinnie Richards, then a Dunlop executive, agreed to pay off both the IRS and a $2,329 bill at the Algonquin Hotel.
Significantly, it was during this period, after he had left the international limelight, that he became more active homosexually—though, as always, only with teen-age boys. While there is no evidence that Tilden was ever blackmailed, some incidents were hushed up and the Tilden Tennis Tour prudently avoided a number of cities. There is a widely held story, unsubstantiated, that he was severely thrashed by a father in Philadelphia. Certainly, he grew much less circumspect, especially after a couple of visits to Cabaret Germany. For the first time Tilden saw homosexuality out in the open, even tolerated in some circles, and it relaxed his puritan instincts.
Suddenly, a traveling ball boy became a staple on the tour. Usually the teen-ager in that role was German, and always he would travel alone with Big Bill in his blue Buick sedan or share a train compartment with him. One morning, while the other players were sitting in the observation car, Tilden came running up to them, distraught. He said he was going to throw himself off the train. "We all grabbed him," Lott recalls, "not because we cared whether Tillie jumped or not but because he was our bread and butter."
They calmed him down and asked him what was the matter. "Fritzi's locked me out of the compartment," Tilden said, nearly sobbing.
A few days later, at a hotel, he came into the lobby where a few of the players were sitting. This time he was all smiles. "Fritzi did the cutest thing this morning," he said.
"What?" someone asked, hardly looking up.
"Before I woke up he took $400 off my bureau and went out and bought himself a watch," Tilden said. That was how a great deal of the money went.
Occasionally during this period, Tilden began to allude to his situation, and in a couple of instances spoke passionately in defense of homosexuality. This man of high honor and wrathful righteousness was at last coming to grips with the strange thing within him that society considered illegal and sinful. His walk and some hand movements became more effeminate, but he was no less the player, no less the star. It was still, as ever, Tilden and Tennis.
In June of 1939, with the war hovering in the wings, Tilden, age 46, was included when a new tour began in London, at Wembley, and when he played, Al Laney, his old nemesis, was moved to write, almost lyrically: "Before Budge was born Tilden was a great player [and] the fire is still there, and the cunning and the showmanship.... He came to play Budge, the greatest player of the day, for the first time, with the air of a master about to give a lesson to a promising pupil. He strode majestically onto the court and made you feel, in spite of yourself, a bit sorry for Budge.... All through the match it was Tilden you were watching, and not Budge. When it was over, he strode off the court as if he were the victor....
"[And then] he was out there giving 20 years to Vines and beating him, outhitting the hardest hitter in the game. Yes, outhitting Vines. He won 6-3, 10-8, and when he came safely past match point with as hard a forehand drive to the corner as any player ever made, they nearly tore the house down. They shouted and stamped on the floor and told him there was no one like him and never had been. They were right about that, too, and it was sweet music to the old gentleman's ears.
"Tilden has made more money out of tennis in his time than anyone else, but they say he is broke now, willing to play anywhere for anything from 50 bucks up. So they're taking him along on this tour. They should be glad he's going along because they're lucky to have him.... The old guy is not through yet, by a long shot."
But he was. There were to be very few more glory days and many more sad ones, so that in the end much of his accomplishment was dimmed and much of his memory clouded. Tilden's niece, Miriam Ambrose, daughter of his brother Herbert, has written a lovely encomium entitled, "My Father's Brother." It talks of love and faith and days long gone, and it also includes these thoughts:
"In essence, none of us really begin on the date of our birth, the forces that contrive us having long been present; nor do we exactly complete ourselves at the hour of our death, leaving as we do lingering impressions that fade slowly from people's minds. Something of Uncle Bill was evolving in our predecessors from a time nobody can pinpoint, and his having moved through our midst stimulated emotions and reactions in us that are still engaging.... In our [family's] view, not much of what is generally known about him actually inspired his superlative tennis.... Somewhere in the past, in his home, in his school, among the people who nurtured him, lies the key to the complexities that enabled him to do just one thing better than anyone else could do it."
What did make this strange man great?
A look at the early years that set Tilden on his course to supremacy and, eventually, to his ruin.