Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Tennis legend ?Big Bill? Tilden was born in Germantown.
Bill Tilden was the number one tennis player in the world for seven years. He has titles held nationally and also internationally in Wimbledon. In addition to being a professional tennis player, he also taught the game to children and others for free. The Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia was the local athletic club near where he grew up, and he played there throughout his life. During his tennis career, he wrote his first novel, The Art of Lawn Tennis, amongst others. In 1959, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He died on June 5, 1953, in Los Angeles, California.
Bill Tilden was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 10, 1893. His parents named him William Tatem Tilden Jr., but he changed it later on to Tilden II because everyone called him “June” or “Junior.” His father, William Tilden Sr., was a successful businessman involved in the wool industry in Philadelphia. His mother, Selina Hey, was an accomplished musician. Tilden was tutored at home until junior high school, when he began attending a small private school, Germantown Academy. Tilden lost three siblings to diphtheria in a span of less than a month before he was born, causing his father to be a more distant, less-emotional man towards Bill. Tilden’s mother suffered from Bright’s Disease in 1908, and she sent Bill to live with his Aunt and her niece. Bill lived there for 33 years. In 1911, his mother passed away from a stroke. At age five, Tilden took up tennis. At age seven, he won his first tournament in a club in New York. The following year, he won a 15-and-under tournament, and he was deemed the “Master Junior.” Tilden furthered his education by attending the University of Pennsylvania, but he soon dropped out due to his mother’s death and his inability to participate on the tennis team. Tilden’s professional career started in 1915 when he began playing for state and national titles. Tilden competed in the Pennsylvania State Championship and reached the final round, beating the national champion R.N. Williams. The following year, he defeated two well-known, successful opponents off the bat. They were Harry Johnson of Boston and Craig Biddle of Newport. It was after this game that the United States Tennis Lawn Association (U.S.T.L.A.) officially noticed Tilden and invited him to the Seabright Invitational. The onset of the First World War pulled many people from their daily lives, but not Tilden. Tilden went to the Carnegie Institute of Technology to join the Signal Corps, but he was soon turned down due to his lanky body structure and his flat-footedness. Tilden was admitted to the Medical Corps and became, as he called himself, “the worst soldier in the Medical Corps.” Tilden’s talent for tennis greatly increased as he played in Pennsylvania throughout the war. In 1920, he made it on the American Davis Cup Team and traveled to London. He led the team to seven consecutive victories from 1920 to 1926. He won Wimbledon in 1920, as well as in 1921 and 1930. During this time, he was also the U.S. champion five times in a row from 1920 to 1930. For nearly a decade, Tilden was the undisputed number one player in the world. His powerful serve was known as a “cannonball” serve, and it was unstoppable. For most of his career, Tilden did not have a powerful backhand. This prevented him from winning numerous matches against his arch rival, Bill “Little Bill” Johnston. After months of practicing a useful backhand swing in Newport, Rhode Island, Tilden had perfected it. It was not uncommon for Tilden to purposely lose the opening sets of a match to give his opponent a head start, only to crush him later on. Throughout Tilden’s career as a tennis superstar, he was also involved in literature and film. He even starred in his very own instructional tennis films. During the mid 1920s and into the 1930s, Tilden managed to satisfy another life dream of acting. He made his Broadway debut in 1922 in the play Clarence. In 1926, Tilden performed on Broadway in the play, Don Q Jr. Although he had an immense passion for acting, his acting career was short-lived. Tilden also worked as an editor for a local tennis magazine. He wrote his first book in 1922, The Art of Lawn Tennis. Shortly thereafter, Tilden wrote The Common Sense of Lawn Tennis (1924). Tilden tried to implement his techniques and tactics of the game into his books. An example of this was Tilden’s strategy of conforming to his opponent’s style of game and then using it against him. Taken from chapter seven, “The Psychology of Match Play” in The Art of Lawn Tennis, Tilden says: “The object of match play is to win, but no credit goes to a man who does not win fairly and squarely. A victory is a defeat if it is other than fair. Yet again I say to win is the object, and to do so, one should play to the last ounce of his strength, the last gasp of his breath, and the last scrap of his nerve. If you do so and lose, the better man won. If you do not, you have robbed your opponent of his right of beating your best. Be fair to both him and yourself.” Tilden utilized this philosophy in every match, and he became the symbol of modern tennis during the era. Tilden settled in Los Angeles, California during the 1940s and continued to travel the world and play tennis. In 1946, he was arrested for child molestation, and he served less than a year in prison. Again in 1949, he was arrested for making advances to an under-aged, male hitchhiker. Tilden served a light 10 months of probation, escaping felonies both times. Tilden’s homosexuality has been said to derive from his lack of a fatherly figure. Tilden wanted to be a fatherly figure for young boys he taught or became acquainted with on the tennis court. His flamboyance was never considered to be an issue, but after these charges, Tilden was shunned by the tennis world. He was not allowed to teach or to enter any tournaments. Tilden went on to live quietly, and he was surprisingly broke. Although he acquired large sums of money from his tennis career, he spent most of it on luxury items, hotel rooms, and as a means of financing his acting. He died alone from a stroke in Los Angeles, California, on June 5, 1953. He was his way to the U.S. Championship in Ohio. He was 60 years old.
It’s All in the Game, and Other Tennis Tales. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1922.
Lawn Tennis for Young Players. London: Methuen, 1922.
The Art of Lawn Tennis. New York: G.H. Doran co., 1922.
The Common Sense of Lawn Tennis. London: Methuen, 1924.
The Phantom Drive and Other Tennis Stories. New York: American Lawn Tennis, 1924.
The Pinch Quitter, and Other Stories for Junior Players. New York: American Lawn Tennis, 1924.
Me- The Handicap. London: Methuen and Co., 1929.
Glory’s Net. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1930.
How to Play Better Tennis. New York: Cornerstone, 1950.