The greatest tennis player of the 1920s up until the early 1930s, William Tatem Tilden II – Big Bill Tilden – has been credited with transforming the reputation of the game from being a “sissy” sport into one for top athletes. Ironically, Tilden was ultimately ostracized for his homosexuality and arrested twice and served prison terms for propositioning underage boys (one of them a 15-year-old hustler).
Tilden was born in 1893 into a wealthy Philadelphia family. He had little interest in sports as a boy and wasn’t even considered one of the best players on his college team. But he developed his game privately and began to win matches, working his way through the tennis circuit and eventually captaining the U.S. team at Wimbeldon to seven victories in a row, from 1920-1927. He also won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon three time, the U.S. Open men’s singles title seven times as well as numerous double, mixed doubles and other titles.
Tilden had a singular style of playing – despite an amazingly powerful serve, he preferred to save it for when needed and instead focused on giving the public an exciting game.
In need of money, in 1931 Tilden went professional, earning large sums of money which he invested in failed Broadway shows – he had acting ambitions and starred in a number of ill-fated productions, including a stint where he played Dracula. He also wrote a number of poorly received novels and short stories. His books on tennis, however, are still considered classics.
Tilden died in 1953, nearly broke and living in a walk-up room in Hollywood. He has since been consistently ranked as among the top tennis players of all time, as well as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.