Why you should care
Because even the very best can spectacularly fall from grace.
After losing the first set to the reigning Wimbledon champ on July 3, 1920, the upper-crust Pennsylvanian looked destined for defeat. But the American hadn’t devoted those many months to honing his backhand to be disgraced by his well-built Australian opponent. So instead of matching stroke for stroke to overcome his rival, this “consummate tactician” relied on his brains.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the first U.S. man to win the Wimbledon singles title wasn’t an obvious powerhouse destined for stardom, but rather an uphill contender who hadn’t even made his college tennis team — and lived a troubled, secretive life.
It was [Tilden] who first made a science of tennis, mastered every stroke, conceived every stratagem.
From Frank Deford’s Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy
But by the time the lanky, broad-shouldered William Tatem Tilden II entered the hallowed grounds of the All England Club that year, he did so with a renewed sense of purpose and conviction. Having lost back-to-back U.S. Open finals (then known as the U.S. Nationals) in 1918 and 1919, Tilden put aside his disappointments to focus on beating the prior year’s Wimbledon champ, Australian Gerald Patterson, in the final. The Roaring ’20s served up what’s often called the “Golden Age of Sports,” a period when slugger Babe Ruth, boxer Jack Dempsey and football’s Red Grange came on the scene — and when tennis would find its icon in “Big Bill” Tilden. He helped establish and popularize the sport, tennis historian Steve Flink tells OZY. “He was the central figure, without a doubt,” he says, in helping the sport evolve in the ’20s and beyond.
Tilden learned to play tennis as a youngster growing up in Philadelphia but wasn’t encouraged by his father to pay serious attention to the sport. Later, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he failed to break into the top-six singles spots. But after the deaths of his father and only brother, Tilden used tennis as a way of channeling his grief, and perhaps neglecting his homosexuality. In what amounted to a near obsession with the game, Big Bill was said to play five sets a day, and he began climbing the rankings, taught clinics, gave free lessons and penned seminal books on proper technique and strategy.
He’d had some early success, despite the less committed efforts, winning the U.S. Nationals mixed doubles title with Mary Browne in 1913 and 1914. But it wasn’t until 1918, three years after his father’s death, that the 25-year-old Army private won his first U.S. singles title on clay in a Chicago tournament. Following consecutive U.S. Nationals losses that year and the one after, the tireless tennis student dedicated his pre-Wimbledon winter to fixing the weak link in his game: his backhand. And in so doing, according to Frank Deford in Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy, Tilden — already in possession of a strategist’s mind, booming serve and commanding forehand — developed what is considered the sport’s first comprehensive game. “It was [Tilden] who first made a science of tennis, mastered every stroke, conceived every stratagem,” wrote Deford. “The greatest talent and genius resided in one.”
And so it was at Wimbledon, at age 27, that Tilden finally broke through, with a four-set victory over Patterson, by approaching the match as a mental game as much as a physical contest — and sizing up and then capitalizing on his opponent’s weaknesses. In all, Tilden would win the famed British event three times, in addition to a standing record of seven U.S. Nationals, which he holds and shares with two others before him. Tilden also led the U.S. to seven consecutive Davis Cup titles.
Six weeks after being released from jail the second time, Tilden was voted the best player in the first half of the 20th century in a poll conducted by the Associated Press, and the world’s No. 1 player from 1920 to 1934 was eventually inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959. Sadly, Tilden was not present to accept the honor, having died six years earlier in Los Angeles at age 60 from heart thrombosis. He had less than $100 to his name.
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