Book Club: Discussing 'American Colossus'—a new history on Bill Tilden

by: Steve Tignor | April 13, 2018

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email
Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email


In this June 1925 file photo, Bill Tilden watches a match in Philadelphia, during the National Doubles Tennis matches. (AP)


In this edition of Book Club, I’m happy to discuss a welcome new addition to the tennis-history canon, American Colossus: Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis (University of Nebraska Press), with its author, Allen M. Hornblum.

*****

Allen,

Congratulations on American Colossus. We don’t have enough solid, serious tennis histories in general, and Bill Tilden may have been the legendary player who was most in need of another look. I knew the basics of his life and career, but your book filled in the gaps and helped put the man—who was as mysterious as he was famous, and as dazzlingly brilliant as he was deeply flawed—in historical context for me.

For someone who was voted the best player of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press, and who was a star of the magnitude of Babe Ruth during the 1920s, Tilden’s name doesn’t come up all that often these days. Like a lot of fans, I know much of what I know about Big Bill from Frank Deford’s book of the same title, which came out more than 40 years ago. As you note in the epilogue of your own book, Deford’s effort, while well-written and entertaining, was riddled with errors and harsh judgements.

We’ll get into the later, controversial aspects of Tilden’s story, but even before his late downfall, his life read like a movie script. I was particularly struck by his path to the top of the sport, which was unlike any other champion’s.

Tilden was a ridiculously late bloomer; even into his 20s, he was little more than a streaky, mediocre member of the Penn tennis team. He was known as “one-round Tilden,” for his tendency to catch fire for the length of a match, but not much longer. What’s interesting is that Tilden essentially taught himself to be a champion in his 20s, at the same time that he was teaching kids near his Philadelphia home how to play. The old axiom says that “those who can do, can’t teach,” and vice-versa. Tilden may be the only great player I know of who was inspired by the advice he was giving to other people. That's an unusual type of genius, wouldn't you say?

With that, I’ll toss the ball to you, Allen. What was your motivation for writing about Tilden, and did you also find his path to success as unique and surprising as I did?

*****

Steve,

I agree, Tilden is a fascinating figure, and regrettably much forgotten. In addition to his unprecedented athletic accomplishments (first American-born Wimbledon winner, seven-time U.S. champ, the game's greatest proponent) was the fact he was a Renaissance Man who wrote over two dozen books, appeared on stage and screen, appreciated classical music and Italian opera, and so on. It was actually the combination of these characteristics—his invisibility and his breadth of accomplishments—that intrigued me. What great athlete today could display such variety in interests and attainment?

As with a number of my other books, which run the gamut from organized crime to Soviet espionage to medical ethics, I became curious about a topic and sought out a good book, only to discover one did not exist or what did was deeply flawed. And as a tennis player and Philadelphian, it was only natural for Big Bill to capture my attention.

Your account of Tilden's passion for the game and his many years as a "dub" is correct. In love with the sport from an early age and hoping to replicate his older brother's success, he devoted much of each day to hitting a tennis ball against a wall and playing at Germantown Cricket, just yards from the family's McKean Street mansion. There was many a day his disgust led him to toss the racquet and abandon the sport, but his attachment to the game was too strong. In teaching the high school players at his alma mater, he learned the nuances of the game, and came to appreciate the game's subtle and varied dimensions. 

No better example of his dedication was his personal journey to Providence, R.I. in 1919, after his defeat to Little Bill Johnston for the American championship. Determined to build an attacking backhand from the ground up, he labored for months to reconstruct what he perceived as his greatest flaw. On his return in the spring of 1920, he was a grass-court assassin with myriad weapons and no weaknesses. The Wimbledon, U.S., and Davis Cup championships quickly followed. 

*****

Allen,

To me, the most astounding sign of Tilden's influence and popularity is the fact that two of tennis' most storied facilities—Roland Garros and the horseshoe stadium at Forest Hills where the US Open was played until 1977—were built to hold the crowds that he drew to the game. It's probably safe to say that through his play as an amateur and then a pro, and his constant teaching and proselytizing, Tilden introduced more people to tennis than anyone in history. While he was widely described as strange, temperamental, and arrogant, most people who knew Tilden found him charming and generous. Unlike so many of his fellow male stars both then and now, he also seemed to respect women players, and was interested in promoting them. I thought it was interesting that he sought out the best woman player of his day, Suzanne Lenglen, and beat her in a set 6-0. On the one hand, you might say Tilden was a jerk for (a) playing the match and (b) showing no mercy. But looked at another way, he respected Lenglen enough to treat her like a fellow player, and not someone he couldn’t be bothered to compete against, or who didn’t play the same sport he did.

Which makes it all the more surprising and tragic to pick up Bud Collins' memoir and read that, in Bud's opinion, Tilden was partially responsible for the lack of interest in tennis in the U.S. during the 1950s and '60s. By then, there was a taint surrounding Tilden, who had served two stints in jail—in reality, a work farm in California—for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” after he was pulled over while riding in a car with a 14-year-old boy. He admitted to having what he called a "nervous strain" that led him to try to strike up relationships that weren't, as he put it, "normal." By that point, Tilden was so synonymous with tennis that his downfall adversely affected the public's opinion of the entire sport, and delayed its wider acceptance and popularity until the 1970s.

Considering Tilden as a whole, the good with the bad, how do you think we should regard him today? In his professional life, Tilden, despite coming from an upper-crust Philadelphia family, was a forward-thinker who took progressive stances and seemed to accept people as they were. Do you believe, in a more tolerant and open age, his story would have ended differently?

*****

Steve,

As you rightly point out, the construction of large tennis stadiums here and abroad were tied to the Tilden phenomenon. His athletic ability, racket skills, and personality caught the attention of millions of formerly disinterested sports fans. Able to pulverize the ball at will, Tilden could also showcase delicate drop-shots, deft lobs, and a variety of spins. Not to mention his court speed and airborne swats at the ball. His ability to combine Dempsey's power and Nijinsky's ballet-like mobility captivated sports fans around the world.

It was that fame that undergirded the formation of professional tennis. Until Bill turned pro in 1931, pro tennis was adrift, not particularly lucrative, and in need of a fan base. With Tilden appearing across America, sports fans—despite the Depression—came out in droves to witness an athletic giant.

Tireless in promoting tennis as a sport for all, Tilden encouraged the USLTA to be more inclusive, democratic and welcoming. He abhorred the old-line oligarchs who were more concerned with preserving antiquated rules and regulations that did much to add an air of elitism and privilege to the sport. Tilden  supported the women's game, lobbied for more junior tournaments and campaigned for open tennis. His efforts won him the enmity of the sport's well-heeled, conservative organizers.

As to Frank Deford's questionable take on Tilden, it was one of the reasons I decided to throw myself into this four-year research and writing project. I discovered many scholars of the game's early years and Tilden fans who believed Deford did Tilden a great injustice. The factual mistakes and amateur armchair psychoanalyzing of Tilden's sexuality were overdue for correction. No doubt Tilden was gay and had a fixation on teenagers, but how much of it was pathological and dangerous remains unknown. He enjoyed the company of young people, wanted to mentor them, encouraged them to appreciate literature and drama, as well as the world of sports.

Of the many young people he took on as tennis students in hopes of one day replicating his own success, not one ever claimed a questionable or offensive act by Tilden. They worshipped him and had nothing but good things to say. Granted, there were two run-ins with the law involving Tilden in the late 1940s that resulted in incarceration, but the specifics of those cases remain murky, as does Tilden' s sexual history as a whole. He was deep in the closet for most of his life, and no doubt struggled in a repressive, anti-gay era. As tennis champion Alice Marble, one Tilden's best friends, commented, "I always got the impression Bill was asexual." 

There are many factors that contribute to Tilden's relatively diminished state today; his criminal convictions are just one of them. But few athletes can compare to his personal impact on their sport, and even fewer compare to his range of intellectual pursuits outside the athletic arena. It can be argued that Tilden is the greatest athlete to come out of America's upper class, as well as the greatest gay male athlete America ever produced.

Embed from Getty Images

*****

Allen,

In your book you often refer to another great tennis figure from upper-class Philadelphia, E. Digby Baltzell, a famous sociologist who wrote a cultural history of the game called Sporting Gentlemen. In that book, Baltzell stated his belief that the latter half of the 1920s was the historical peak for men's tennis; reading your book, it’s easy to see why. Those were the years when Tilden, Bill Johnston and the French Musketeers—Lacoste, Borotra, Cochet, Brugnon—were vying for the game's big titles. Each tournament offered a seemingly un-toppable five-set classic, only to have it topped by another at the next major competition.

Embed from Getty Images

It's interesting that the two best, or at least the two most famous, players of that era, Tilden and Lacoste, were also the two most strategically curious and innovative. It's as if the sport, and the best ways of playing it, were still being discovered at that time, and because players didn't primarily win with raw power then, they had more time to construct rallies and try to out-think each other.

What was it like to write about these legendary matches that you couldn't watch, and why do you think that era produced so many epics? Having immersed yourself in that time period, how do you feel it compares to the game now, nearly a century later?

*****

Steve,

Your mention of E. Digby Baltzell underscores just one of the many surprises I came across while researching Tilden and the early years of tennis. I suspect most are like myself in that of Baltzell's many books, his study of tennis is the least known. However, it’s a wonderful account of the game's development, and the importance of its bedrock principles, honesty and good sportsmanship. Something he was sad to see fall to the wayside with the rise of Connors, McEnroe and what he referred to as the “roughneck” tennis of the 1970s.

And yes, Baltzell was quite taken by the rise of the French and their campaign to take the Davis Cup trophy from America. I devote three chapters in American Colossus to the Musketeers and their quest to become the dominant tennis-playing nation. Lacoste, Cochet, Borotra and Brugnon were gifted players with different strengths and styles, but all were dedicated to the same goal, and that could only be achieved by taking down the Mount Everest of players, Tilden. He stood between them and the Davis Cup, the most treasured team title in sport. Lacoste, though the youngest, was the most thoughtful, and designed a siege-like strategy that military generals would have appreciated.

Reading the newspaper accounts of these athletic contests by great tennis writers like Allison Danzig and Al Laney was a joy, and quite helpful in visualizing the game as it was played by the best at that time. It is so regrettable that so few Americans—even fans of the game—are so ignorant of pre-Open tennis; it’s as if the sport was invented in 1968. Some may recognize the names of Budge, Riggs, Kramer and Gonzalez, but there were so many more, like Little Bill Johnston, R. Norris Williams and Vinnie Richards that routinely stirred the hearts of American sports fans.

As to which Tilden contests I would have loved to observe, there are too many to name. His many bouts with Johnston were legendary, and his knockdown drag-out contests with Lacoste, Cochet and Borotra were no less exciting. But one must remember that in addition to immense athletic ability, Tilden was also an artist. He played the game like no other so that any match against any opponent could draw gasps from the audience. Shots of uncanny creativity and difficulty were routine. As Lacoste observed, "Even on those rare occasions when Tilden loses, he’s still thought to have been the better player."

In short, if the tennis gods had decided to create the perfect player, someone possessed with athleticism, racquet skill, and tactical genius, they could have done no better than William T. Tilden II.


You can purchase American Colossus on Amazon.com.

Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Email

More Stories

ATP Finals Semifinals Preview: Federer v. Zverev; Djokovic v. Anderson

Djokovic is looking to cap off his remarkable 2018 comeback with a win in London.

Zverev tops Isner to set up semifinal clash with Federer at ATP Finals

Zverev is just 2-3 in his career when facing Federer, but he's confident in his chances. 

With win over Anderson, Federer qualifies for semifinals at ATP Finals

Despite the 6-4, 6-3 loss, Anderson also advanced.