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Tilden's talents were untouchable

Tennis star of the '20s won 10 major titles and led the United States' Davis Cup team to seven consecutive championships.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 1999

Bill Tilden's sixth consecutive U.S. National tennis championship was born of defeat seven years earlier.

He was 26 when, in 1919, he first reached the final of the tournament at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. Bill Johnston took advantage of Tilden's weak backhand to beat him 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, never losing his serve.

Tilden, embarrassed, moved to Newport, R.I., and cut a deal with a wealthy executive who owned one of the country's few indoor courts. If he would give Tilden use of the court to work on his backhand, Tilden would provide free tennis tutoring to the man's son.

In the winter of 1919-20, while not teaching the young man, the obsessive Tilden developed a topspin backhand.

At the 1920 U.S. National, Tilden beat Johnston in the final, starting a string of six U.S. National titles, five of them against Johnston.

On Sept. 19, 1925, in the last of them, Johnston won the first set 6-4 and led 9-8 in the second (this was before tiebreakers) and was at set point. But Tilden saved himself with an ace that seemed to turn momentum in his favor. Tilden won that set 11-9 and the next 6-3.

Johnson picked up the pace and won the fourth set 6-4. But according to an account of the match, "Tilden did not seem to be exercised at the loss of the set, for he felt that he was out of danger." He was, winning the fifth set 6-3.

"On the last point of the match," the report read, "Tilden with his keen sense of the dramatic paused to measure the service line and served a clean ace which stirred the lime of both the service and center service lines."

He won a seventh U.S. National before the decade was over. In 1920 he became the first American to win Wimbledon, repeated as champion in 1921 and, at the age of 37 in 1930, became the oldest man to win a Wimbledon singles title.

He won seven U.S. clay court titles, six U.S. doubles titles, five mixed doubles and four national indoor titles, while also leading the United States to seven consecutive Davis Cups from 1920-26, including 13 consecutive singles victories in Cup competition. He didn't lose a match in all of 1924.

He grew up in wealth, part of Philadelphia's Main Line and would become as much a star of 1920s, the so-called Golden Age of Sports, as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange and Bobby Jones. He revolutionized tennis, changing it from a back-and-forth baseline game to a serve-and-volley competition with different shots and strategies. But Tilden also was a homosexual in a less tolerant era.

Tilden became a tennis pro in 1930 and won an estimated $500,000 from 1931-37. But twice in Los Angeles in the 1940s he was arrested and jailed for incidents involving teenage boys. Friends abandoned him and he was banned from many clubs and tournaments. In 1953 Tilden died at age 60; his net worth was $88.11.

-- Information from American Lawn Tennis was used in this report.

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