Overleigh Mansion : Big Bill 'Tilden": "Big Bill" Tilden
The sky had been dark throughout the cool September day. Rain fell on the grass courts of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York City. The weather postponed the final match of the 1920 U.S. National Championship, and Bill Tilden sat at a small table, patiently playing bridge. Although nearly two months earlier, he had won Wimbledon, considered the world championship, he had not yet won the U.S. national title. Many still believed his Californian rival, Bill Johnston, to be the better player, despite Johnston’s loss before the two met at Wimbledon. Johnston’s many fans believed that Tilden’s victory was a fluke and that in a match between the two, Johnston would easily win.
Today’s weather brought back memories of the previous year’s finals match at Forest Hills, when it had rained for two full days before Johnston defeated Tilden in three quick sets to win the national title. Sportswriters said that Tilden lost because his feet sank into the sod of the soaked court and prevented him from using his notoriously powerful serve. Tilden, however, knew that his weak backhand stroke had cost him the match, and he practiced it every day during the following off-season. The stroke helped him win at Wimbledon, but if Tilden could counter Johnston’s offensive game here, he would know for certain that his hard work had paid off.
The rain slowed to a halt and the two players were called to the lawn, but the sky was still dark and gray clouds loomed over the scene. Bill Johnston walked onto the court with two rackets in hand; his rival came with an armful. Ten thousand spectators cheered for Johnston from the grandstands. Tilden was unfazed and claimed the first set, 6-1, but Johnston won the second with the same score. Play became closer as each player tried to break away from the other. Tilden won the next set 7-5, but Johnston rallied himself again and won the fourth set 7-5. Rain began to sprinkle over the players.
The roar of an engine hung over the grounds as a military plane flew over the match for a photo-opportunity. After three passes overhead, the engine failed and the plane plowed into the ground, missing a full grandstand by only 200 feet and killing the pilot. The umpire feared a panic in the stands and asked the pair if they could continue play. Johnston said yes without hesitation and strode back onto the court. The umpire turned to face Tilden and asked him again. He responded, “I’m ready,” and took his place on the opposite side of the net. The tension of the match kept the audience seated. Bill Tilden won the final set, 6-3, and became the undisputed champion of the world at the age of 27.
“Big Bill” Tilden, as he came to be known, was an unconventional player. Lanky and broad shouldered, he weighed in at 155 lb. and towered over his opponents at 6’1”, well above the average height at the time. His small eyes and ears almost disappeared on his tall, boxy face. Tilden’s clothing was just as unusual. The cheap suits that he wore never seemed to fit him and were constantly dirty. Whenever he played tennis, however, he was spotlessly clean. Tilden’s athleticism seemed unaffected by his chain smoking and unusual eating habits.
Tilden’s game was tremendously versatile, but he was most famous for his extraordinarily powerful “cannonball” serve. In a 1921 article, Philadelphia’s Public Ledger called it both a “hurricane drive” and a “whiz-bang service.” Even when Tilden was well into his late 40s, he “[outhit] the hardest hitter in the game,” as Al Laney reported. Despite his great power game, Tilden preferred to rely instead on his fantastic stamina. His game was well-rounded, and he had “three different versions of just about every stroke” (Deford). The London Times reported that “there [was] no stroke Mr. Tilden [could] not do at full speed.”
Bill Tilden worked on his mental game as much as his physical game. He wrote a number of books that described his conclusions about the sport’s psychology. In one of his more enduring works, The Art of Lawn Tennis, he wrote that “tennis is played primarily with the mind.” Among other things, he explained the strategic differences between singles and doubles games, how different surfaces affect gameplay, and the role that confidence plays in one’s game. He also analyzed individual players from around the world.
Critics praised Tilden’s unrivaled strategy and his adaptability during matches. The Public Ledger wrote that his 1920 victory at Wimbledon was “characterized by experts as the soundest and brainiest ever seen on English courts.” Late in his career, Tilden once played a match against René Lacoste in France. Tilden had lost the past four matches that the two had played together, and Lacoste pulled ahead to an early lead in this one. Tilden abandoned his style of play after he lost the first set and instead imitated Lacoste’s. Tilden swept the rest of the match and left Lacoste dumbfounded. His confidence shattered, Lacoste slouched in the locker room and lamented, “Two years ago I knew at last how to beat him…Is he not the greatest player of them all?”
Bill Tilden was born in Germantown on February 10, 1893. His mother was the daughter of a prosperous textile manufacturer, and she married William Tilden Sr., who became her father’s partner after the two wed. Tilden Sr. became a prominent member of society and once even considered a bid for Philadelphia mayor. The family’s wealth allowed them to move from their small Germantown home to the Overleigh Mansion at 5015 McKean Avenue shortly after Bill’s birth. Bill spent his early life at the mansion, but moved into a room in his aunt’s row house in the same neighborhood while he attended the Germantown Academy. He frequently returned to his room at 519 Hansberry Avenue as late as the 1930s.
Bill’s older brother, Herbert, was a prolific tennis player and encouraged his brother to play the game as well. The family’s home was down the street from The Germantown Cricket Club, and the two played there often. Bill was more interested in music and theater, but tennis became a defining part of his life. Herbert played on the University of Pennsylvania’s varsity tennis team and won the state championships in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Bill attempted to follow in his brother’s footsteps, but he lacked the skill and could not even make the tennis team at Penn, where he also attended. His mother’s death in 1911 unnerved Bill, and he left the school. He had not fully recovered when his father also died in July of 1915. Only two months later, his brother contracted pneumonia and died.
The only surviving member of his family, Bill became visibly depressed. Trapped by his grief, he spent most of his time in his room in his aunt’s small row house. His cousin, who lived in the house with him, heard Bill’s footsteps through the ceiling when he got up and paced his room. Faint opera music passed under his door after he replaced one record with another. She eventually approached him and encouraged Bill to find focus in his life. He took her advice and dedicated himself to tennis in 1916.
Tilden's early tennis career did not take off immediately. When he first entered the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills in 1916, he failed to make it pass the first round. Returning to the tournament each subsequent year, Tilden made it to the finals in 1918 and 1919, but lost both times. After revamping his faults during the winter of 1919-1920, he claimed the 1920 Wimbledon title and cemented his championship status by winning at Forest Hills. Tilden won both championships again the next year. He won the U.S. National Championship consistently until 1925, and once more in 1929, but declined to compete at Wimbledon again until 1927. His international acclaim was already so great that neither Tilden nor his opponents felt that he needed to prove himself across the Atlantic. The USLTA ranked Tilden as the number one player in America from 1920 to 1929 and as the greatest player in the world until 1925, but his popularity long outlasted his top ranking.
Tilden was as famous for the drama that he brought to tennis as for his great playing skill. He wrote that “the player owes the gallery as much as an actor owes the audience” and acted to fill the part. At times, Tilden intentionally lost early sets to prolong a game and make a dramatic comeback. Other times, he challenged calls that were clearly correct. The Philadelphia Record reported that during his 1930 play at Wimbledon, “the crowd howled jeers at [Tilden] like baseball fans at an umpire” when he “had the audacity to question linesmen on their decisions.” On multiple occasions, he walked off the court before finishing a match.
The drama that Tilden brought to the court stemmed from his lifelong interest in performance. His fame brought him to Hollywood where he befriended many celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. Tilden took up acting and wrote his own plays. He memorized entire plays and silently mouthed other performers’ lines on stage. Despite his passion, he lacked the talent needed for professional theatre. He himself admitted that the critics were justified in calling him “the world’s worst actor.” He found more success as an author. He wrote tennis-themed fiction, but the many instructional books and videos that he produced were much more popular. He wrote tennis columns for the Philadelphia Public Ledger Syndicate and, for decades, he listed his occupation as a newspaperman because he preferred writing over tennis.
Tilden reveled in the high life and committed most of his money to it. He was irresponsible with his money and dined out for every meal. He frequently held a suite at the Algonquin luxury hotel in New York City’s Theatre District, staying for months at a time and usually failing to check out when he left, sometimes forcing friends or others to pay his bill. Tilden’s extravagance fed his ego and when photographed by paparazzi or journalists, he even told the photographer how to take his picture.
Tilden held a strained relationship with the USLTA throughout his career. The organization represented a conservative, gentlemanly style of tennis that characterized the sport until recently. Tilden wrote simply, “It annoyed me.” The USLTA disapproved of Tilden’s flamboyant tennis persona as much as he disapproved of their steadfast traditionalism. They feared that the controversies that he and his personal life created would defame the sport. Although it was only rumored in the public, Tilden’s peers knew that he was gay, although he never admitted to it. The USLTA considered Tilden a danger to the sport’s reputation and tried to dissociate with him on multiple occasions.
The USLTA first attempted to rid itself of Tilden in 1924 by banning players from writing tennis articles about tournaments that they were playing in. This move targeted Tilden specifically because his passion for writing was well known, and the USLTA hoped that he would quit tennis rather than writing. After a public outcry, and a charge led by Tilden, the group compromised and instead prohibited players from writing opinion articles about these tournaments. Although the USLTA rarely enforced the rule, and other players broke it regularly, the group succeeded in using it to ban Tilden in 1928. Their ruling met tremendous national and international pressure, but the group stood its ground and consented only to a short postponement of the ban. The ban forced Tilden to turn professional in 1931 when he was almost forty years old. His professional tours brought him to Cabaret, Germany, where he witnessed an openly gay community for the first time. After this visit, his sexuality became increasingly noticeable.
His career eventually ended in scandal. On the night of November 23, 1946, Bill Tilden’s Packard Clipper swerved on the streets of Beverly Hills. A police car flashed its sirens and directed the car to the side of the road. The driver’s door opened and a young boy stepped into the street. Police arrested Tilden and he admitted to touching the boy. The boy’s parents brought charges against Tilden and the State of California indicted him for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A psychiatrist who investigated the case said that Tilden was neurotic and that he should be treated, but a trial commenced anyway. Tilden believed that his status and Hollywood connections would save him from prison, and he pled guilty. The judge sentenced him to a year in prison, but he did not serve the full term. Arrested again in 1949 for violating his probation by being alone with a minor, Tilden lost most of his remaining friends, and the tennis community shunned him.
Out of jail, Tilden was impoverished but hoped to resume his tennis career. He entered the 1953 U.S. Professional Championships at Ohio’s Lakewood Park. On June 5, the night before he was to leave for the tournament, he suffered a heart attack in his apartment and died with less than $90 to his name. He was cremated in California and is buried at his family’s burial plot at the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Germantown.
- Frank Deford, Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975).
- International Tennis Hall of Fame, History of Philadelphia Tennis 1875-1995 (USA, 1995).
- The Germantown Cricket Club, 100 Years of the Germantown Cricket Club (1954).
- William T. Tilden II, Me—The Handicap (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1929).
- William T. Tilden II, My Story (New York: Hellman, Williams & Company, 1948).
- William T. Tilden II, The Art of Lawn Tennis (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1922), http://ia600304.us.archive.org/29/items/theartoflawntenn01451gut/tenis10.txt.