Bill Tilden - Our Greatest Athlete
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.