Tilden won with style
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

"He stood for an awful lot more than just having that label (being a homosexual) track him down throughout the rest of his life. It's a shame that tennis had to suffer over something so unimportant, especially in today's times. Maybe back then, the attitude was a bit different. But in today's times, that would just fly right over and he'd be the great player that he was," says five-time U.S. Open champion Jimmy Connors about Bill Tilden on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, February 26, 10:30 p.m. ET). Tilden, winner of 10 Grand Slam singles titles, was voted No. 45 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.


 Bill Tilden
Bill Tilden may have been the greatest American tennis player ever.

Sept. 6, 1920 -- Though Bill Tilden had won Wimbledon this summer, he needed to beat Bill Johnston, his conqueror in last year's U.S. Nationals finals, in today's U.S. championship match to claim his place as No. 1 in the world.

Tilden came to the court in Forest Hills dressed in his camel's hair coat, the big sash tied, and carried an armful of rackets. Johnston brought two rackets. Tilden, with the backhand drive that he had developed last winter and a brilliant first serve, easily won the first set, 6-1.

Johnston won the second set by the same lopsided score. Then the two Bills put on a clinic, each raising his game to another level. Tilden won the third set 7-5; Johnston the fourth, also 7-5.

During the match, a military plane flew overhead as a photographer took pictures. Suddenly, the plane came crashing down, slamming into the ground some 200 feet from a grandstand. Both the photographer and pilot were killed.

The umpire asked Tilden and Johnston if they could continue playing. Both said yes. In the decisive fifth set, Tilden broke Johnston's serve three times and won 6-3. Big Bill had finally defeated Little Bill in a significant match. He was No. 1, at last, at age 27.

It would be the first of six consecutive U.S. National titles for Tilden.


Tilden was ranked No. 1 in the world from 1920-25 and No. 1 nationally from 1920-29.

In his 23 Grand Slam Tournaments, Tilden reached the semifinals 20 times (20 of 21 starting in 1918). His quarterfinal loss to Henri Cochet in five sets (8-6 in the fifth after leading 6-5) in the 1926 U.S. Nationals ended his streak of six straight U.S. championships. He was 10-5 in finals, including 7-3 in the U.S. Nationals and 3-0 at Wimbledon.

In the late 1920s, Tilden lost his world supremacy to Rene Lacoste and Cochet. He won only twice in Grand Slam appearances from 1926-30 before turning pro.

Tilden competed in three French Championships, which until 1925 were restricted to members of French clubs. He lost a five-set final (11-9 in the fifth set after serving a match point at 9-8) to Lacoste in 1927 and a four-set final to Cochet in 1930. In 1929, he lost in the semifinals.

He never played in the Australian Championships.

In 1928, he was barred from competing in the U.S. Nationals by the USLTA, which didn't like Tilden's arrogant behavior. The organization banned him because he was paid for writing about tennis.

Tilden won his seventh -- and last -- U.S. Nationals in 1929, at age 36. He won the last two sets to defeat Frank Hunter in a five-set final. Tilden didn't care much for women players. He played a little mixed doubles with his favorites, but he made it known that he was slumming. He believed that men shouldn't instruct women in tennis, but leave that job to other women.

Though called Big Bill, he was 6-foot-1 1/2 and didn't weigh more than 175 pounds until he was in his fifties. He had wide clothes-hanger shoulders that tapered down to thin hips.

In his later years, when he lived in Hollywood, Tilden had quite a few movie-star friends, including Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Joseph Cotten.

Tilden was first arrested on Nov. 23, 1946 on Sunset Boulevard when he had in his hand in a teenage boy's pants. He could have been charged with a felony ("lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor"), but was charged only with a misdemeanor ("contributing to the delinquency of a minor"). He was sentenced to a year in prison and served 7 1/2 months.

He was arrested again on Jan. 28, 1949, after picking up a 16-year-old hitchhiker and making advances. The new charge could have been prosecuted as a felony, but the judge merely sentenced Tilden to a year on his probation violation and let the punishment for the new molesting charge run concurrently. He served 10 months.

After being released, Tilden found himself even more shunned. More tennis clubs wouldn't let him teach and fewer students came his way on public courts.

After his death in 1953 in Los Angeles, Tilden was cremated and shipped back to Philadelphia. A small stone was bought for $115. There is no other monument in the world for the man who was possibly the greatest American tennis player ever.