Bill Tilden - A Self-taught Genius
A Self-Taught Genius
Tilden, at over six feet tall, trim with long legs and wide shoulders, had the perfect tennis build. He moved quickly and gracefully, had a powerful forehand, a strong serve, and a slicing backhand. Tilden was also able to mix it up on the court, slicing and dicing, and adapting his play to that of his opponents. He was ranked for the first time in 1915, in the top 70. By the summer of 1916 he had begun playing major tournaments, accepted at Forest Hills for the U.S. singles, but losing in straight sets in his first round. He began to concentrate on the game of tennis not only on the court, but off, as well, examining the game from the standpoint of geometry and physics, figuring out angles and lines of direction. He also became a student of the psychological aspects of the game, determining that it must be part of his strategy to get into the head of his opponent and disrupt that person's own game plan. Such studies were in part due to an unpaid position he took as tennis coach to his former alma mater, the Germantown Academy. Tilden's ranking in the amateur standings steadily rose, elevated to the top twenty by the end of 1916.
With the advent of U.S. involvement in the First World War in 1917, Tilden joined the Army Medical Corps, but was stationed in Pittsburgh, where his commanding officer, a tennis enthusiast, decreed that the young man should continue to play as many tournaments as possible. His time in the military actually saw a boost in his game as a result of this time spent playing. In 1918, out of the Army, Tilden won his first major singles title, the U.S. Clay Court, and his first major doubles at the National Doubles, but lost in the finals at Forest Hills. The following year Tilden again lost in the finals of the U.S. singles at Forest Hills, this time to Bill Johnston, who became his Davis Cup teammate and rival for much of the next decade. He decided that something radical had to be done with his game or else he would remain forever a talented player who could just not break through to number one.
In 1919 Tilden, at age 26, decided to overhaul his game, in particular his backhand. He knew that he needed more than a defensive slice, and he spent the greater part of the fall and winter of 1919 and 1920 developing a backhand drive, a flat, powerful shot that could equal his forehand. In the era before California and Florida tennis camps, he needed to find an available playing surface for the winter months, and thus took a job for an insurance company in Providence, Rhode Island, where part of his duties were tutoring the son of the local manager, thus gaining the use of that man's indoor court. He worked daily on his stroke production until he felt confident with his new backhand. By the late spring of 1920 he was ready. Chosen for the Davis Cup team as a replacement player, he sailed for England, where first he would play the tournament at Wimbledon. To the surprise of everyone there, Tilden won Wimbledon and even won over the British crowds with his showmanship on court. He was the first American to win this title in several decades and his victory in England thrust him into the first rank of Davis Cup players. He and Johnston were chosen to play both singles and doubles, beating the English and the French teams later that summer without losing a match.
Back in America, Tilden faced Johnston again in the finals at Forest Hills, a match that is generally considered to be one of the greatest in the history of that tournament. After splitting the first two sets 6-1 each, Tilden took the third at 7-5 and then Johnston stormed back to take the fourth 7-5. Tilden pulled out all the stops with his new backhand, mixing it up with both defensive slices and driving flat shots from both sides. He also confused Johnston with his serve, hitting not only his trademark cannonball, but also high kicking serves and sliders, serving up 20 aces overall. With the match even, the drama was heightened even more by the crash of an airplane just outside the grounds. The players continued the game, and Tilden won the final set 6-3, securing for him the number one position in the world, a ranking he would maintain for the next six years. He and Johnston were then chosen to lead the Davis Cup team to New Zealand where they were victorious, bringing the cup back to America for the next seven years. The Tilden era in tennis had begun.