2 minute read

Bill Tilden - Tilden's Legacy

Famous Sports StarsTennisBill Tilden Biography - Born Into Privilege, Chronology, A Self-taught Genius, Awards And Accomplishments, The Tilden Age

Tilden's Legacy

Bill Tilden changed the sport of tennis forever. Not only did he revolutionize the game with his emphasis on variety of stroke production, but also with his reliance on a sort of inner tennis, in which psychology was an acknowledged on-court partner. "No man ever bestrode sports as Tilden did during [1920 to 1930]," wrote Deford in Sports Illustrated. "It was not just that he could not be beaten, it was as if he had invented the game." And as Bud Collins noted in Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis, "If a player's value is measured by the dominance and influence he exercises over a sport, then William Tatem 'Big Bill' Tilden II could be considered the greatest player in the history of tennis."

Our Greatest Athlete

Tilden was sixty when he died and it is only about a year since he played in the professional championship, where he defeated Wayne Sabin and played a close match with Frank Kovacs. This represents a period of thirty-five years of continuous championship play in a game as strenuous as any. And at fifty-nine Tilden still was the world's finest tennis player over the short span of one set….

The usual thing is to say that Tilden belonged to the so-called Golden Age of sport, the age of Bobby Jones, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange, the Four Horsemen and Babe Ruth, that he was one of the great ones. Well, there above is the evidence to support the contention that Tilden was our greatest athlete in any sport….

Great as he was as a player, it is impossible to consider Tilden out-side the rich soil of his nature. He was arrogant, quarrelsome, unreasonable; very hard to get along with and all his life an unhappy man. It is not generally known that Tilden was a wealthy man and that he ran through at least two substantial family fortunes to die with ten dollars in his pocket. And he probably made more money out of tennis than even the modern plutocrats of the professional exhibition racket. Throughout his life he lived on a scale befitting an Indian Prince. Through the wonderful era of the 1920s he spent with a lavish hand….

Tilden longed beyond all else to be a great actor, and he dropped a small fortune producing plays with him as the star, plays that failed miserably. For Tilden, who was indisputably a great actor on the tennis court—who ever can forget those majestic entrances and exits at Forest Hills and Wimbledon?—was a tragic figure behind the footlights….

Tilden, unquestionably, was one of the great personalities of our time. He died alone, in poverty. But even those who defeated him on the courts could never hope to be his equal. Probably we shall never see his like again.

Source: Al Laney, The Fireside Book of Tennis, edited by Allison Danzig and Peter Schwed, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

If his off-court behavior was questionable, it was also pitiable. But his contributions to the game of tennis can not be discounted because of such personal indiscretions. Almost single-handedly he transformed the game of tennis from one that was considered an effete pastime, to a national obsession that filled stadiums and brought to the game an entire new generation not only of spectators, but also of players anxious to best Tilden and his records. Instrumental in transforming the elitist amateur game of tennis into the modern professional, open-era game, Tilden will be long remembered as one of the greats of the sport. As tennis writer Allison Danzig wrote in The Fireside Book of Tennis, Tilden "was the master of his time and for all time."

Additional topics