Outcast who once ran with the Hollywood set
By Mark Hodgkinson
Page 1 of 3
You might think that Roger Federer would have nothing in common with a man who once ran with the outrageous Hollywood set, was twice imprisoned for gay scandals or "immoral offences", lost most of his fortune backing ill-fated Broadway stage plays, and died alone in a rented room with less than 100 dollars to his name. But you would be wrong.
Some time soon Federer and Bill Tilden are going to be closely linked by the tennis world.
When Federer reaches 10 grand slam titles won, and he may join that club at this month's Australian Open, then he should take some time to consider the life of Tilden. The American also once dominated men's tennis, winning 10 majors during the inter-war years. But Tilden was the tennis champion who became an outcast. Tilden, who was homosexual, was shunned after twice being sent to prison, the first time for having sex with a male teenage prostitute, the second time for groping a male teenage hitchhiker.
This was at a time when it was difficult enough for people to even admit to being gay. Tilden's behaviour shocked Middle America.
Everyone in tennis still talks about the others in that elite club who have won 10 slams or more. We know all about Pete Sampras with his 14, Roy Emerson on 12, and Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg on 11 each. But Tilden is almost the forgotten man, the dirty secret, of tennis history. Some 54 years after his death, an event which tennis largely failed to mark in any way, he is still remembered with something less than affection by his sport. Once an outcast, probably always an outcast.
The contrast between Federer and Tilden is immense. You often feel like Federer's entire life is as expertly controlled as one of those backhands of his.
Some maintain that Tilden was the finest of all time. There is no argument that, during the Twenties and Thirties, Tilden was the biggest star of tennis. In fact, Tilden alone was tennis back then, and he was arguably the most famous American face across the world. This was a man who became friends with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn, occasionally teaching his starry pals some tennis. He also had ambitions, or delusions, of becoming a celebrated actor himself.
But Tilden's life was not just filled with red carpets, and tennis glory, and sepia prints of him holding up trophies. His life was controversial, helter-skelter, colourful, but ultimately extremely sad. Tilden was brash, dapper, arrogant, theatrical, flamboyant, insecure and troubled. Federer's life would make an epic documentary. Tilden's would make a tawdry show just off Broadway (and just the sort of terrible production he would have foolishly thrown his money at).
Tilden, or 'Big Bill' as he became known, was born William Taten Tilden II to a privileged family in Philadelphia in 1893. By winning the men's singles at Wimbledon in 1920, Tilden became the first American man to triumph at the All England Club. And, in late summer of that year, and after peeling off the camel coat he had worn as he strode on court — there was a sign of his theatricality — he added the US Open trophy. Tilden won three Wimbledon titles in all, with further victories in 1921 and 1930, with a total of seven victories at the US Open.
Some commentators have seen a paradox in that, when Tilden's sexuality was still secret from the public, it was said that he had been responsible for shedding tennis's image as a 'sissy' pastime.
The Federer of his day, Tilden had all the shots. He had a ferocious serve, and a knowledge of spin which was second to none. Indeed, Tilden's mastery of spin and tennis tactics and psychology was shown in the tennis books he wrote, The Art of Lawn Tennis and Match Play and the Spin of the Ball. The second of those titles is still regarded as a definitivee tennis text.
And Tilden knew he was good. Hand on hip, he once remarked to an opponent before their match: "I'll play my own sweet game." In fact, Tilden felt so in control on court that there were occasions when he would deliberately lose the first two sets of a five-set match just so he would have the challenge, and just as importantly, the drama, of working his way back and then achieving a memorable win. He also felt an obligation to prolong the entertainment for the crowd.
Tilden felt as though the tennis court was his stage. And once he was there, he did not want to exit stage right or stage left. "Tennis is more than just a sport. It's an art, like the ballet, or like a performance in the theatre. When I step on court I see the footlights in front of me. I hear the whispering of the audience. I feel an icy shudder. Win or lose! Now or never! It's the crisis of my life," disclosed Tilden, sounding more like a theatre-land luvvie than an athlete.
Tilden was often rude. At the time, all competitors at Wimbledon were expected to play in the singles and doubles competitions. But Tilden refused to play mixed doubles. "Women emasculate genius," he told officials at the All England Club. "They have ploys and they make petty demands of their partners." And Tilden annoyed tennis administrators in the United States by writing tart, jibe-filled reports about the tennis scene which were used in newspapers across America. Tilden thought nothing of insulting his opponents. He was not exactly from the Trappist school of tennis players.
Earning ridiculous amounts of money came easily to Tilden. And so did spending it. He had an extravagant lifestyle. He kept a personal suite at the Algonquin Hotel, New York, he attended and threw wild parties with his Hollywood friends. By all accounts, he was Mr Debauchery.
But his major expense was Broadway. Most of his money went on investing in plays, some of which he wrote, produced and appeared in (as well as his plays and his tennis books, he also penned poems, and novels about sporting but misunderstood tennis stars). Some of the plays he probably only put money into in an attempt to launch his acting career. But it seemed that his acting talent never matched his high ambitions.
Tilden was 37 when he won his last grand slam, at Wimbledon in 1930, but, with money running low, he left amateur tennis and turned professional. Throughout the Thirties, and also in the Forties, he went on tour, playing in various cities.
It has been said that, as he aged and his tennis became more ragged, he became more and more open about being gay. Tilden's homosexuality became an open secret in tennis, and there was growing concern that he liked underage boys. One American newspaper ran a picture of Tilden demonstrating some tennis technique to a young male, with the nudge-nudge caption: "Tilden takes a keen interest in the boy."
There is evidence to suggest that, when journeying across America, he took with him a group of teenage 'ball boys'. In important doubles competitions, Tilden often partnered junior boys. Tilden's father had been distant and cold, and he died when Tilden was young. It has been suggested that Tilden's poor relationship with his father may have contributed to him, later in life, wanting to create a type of father-son relationship with these ball boys and youthful tennis players.
Tilden was first arrested in late 1946 when he was caught engaging in a sexual act with a teenage prostitute on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He served seven months of a one-year sentence.
And in 1949 he violated his parole by picking up a hitchhiker, who was believed to have been 16, and making unwanted advances. He was sentenced to a year in jail and served 10 months.
It was said that Tilden did not defend himself particularly vigorously at either trial as he felt that his own celebrity, and also his friendship with Hollywood figures would lead to verdicts of not guilty. Also, at his first trial, Tilden claimed that his mind had been messed up by a car accident.
After leaving prison for a second time, Tilden was ignored by the tennis world. He was barred from most tennis clubs across America, which meant he was unable to make a living. Old friends also shunned him; they would see him coming, and blank him before quickly walking off. The racket manufacturer who had sponsored him ordered a recall of all the equipment bearing his name. Tilden had become a tennis outcast.
Tilden trawled some of the public courts, offering lessons at cheap rates, and picked up a few dollars here and there. But he became so desperate that he was forced to sell his trophies.
Soon, Tilden was a sad, lonely, tragic man. It was said that if he knew someone in the area he would arrive unannounced on their doorstep in the evening, in the hope that he would be invited in for a meal and to sleep on the sofa. He rarely washed or changed out of the tennis kit which he had been sweating in all day. When Tilden died of a heart attack, in 1953, it was in a small, rented room in Los Angeles. He was 60 years old, and had 88 dollars and 11 cents to his name.
Just as the tennis world had turned away from him in the final years of his life, so he was ignored when he was dead. Only a handful of family friends attended the funeral. The United States Tennis Association did not send a representative. They did not even send flowers. He was cremated and shipped back to Philadelphia, and a small stone was bought for 115 dollars.
Tilden, the Federer of his day, was treated like a nobody.
14 Pete Sampras (US)
12 Roy Emerson (Aus)
11 Bjorn Borg (Swe)
Rod Laver (Aus)
10 Bill Tilden (US)
9 Roger Federer (Swi)
8 Andre Agassi (US)
Jimmy Connors (US)
Fred Perry (GB)
Ken Rosewall (Aus)