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William Tatem Tilden has been acclaimed by many—and perhaps rightly so—as the best tennis player who ever lived. But what he wanted most to be was an actor and author. He was frustrated in both ambitions. The plays that Big Bill appeared in were mostly flops, and his writing—because he got paid for it—once earned him a suspension from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association.
One of Tilden's instructional books, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball (Kennikat Press, Port Washington, N.Y., $5.95), has just been reissued 44 years after its first appearance, and it is good to report that Big Bill's advice on how to win tennis matches is as fresh and as up-to-date as if it were written yesterday.
Tennis has changed drastically since the gangling and colorful all-court master from Germantown, Pa. dominated the sport in the '20s. It is no longer a casual, baseline game played only at stuffy country clubs. It now explodes with power. It is a game built on the big serve and volley and a "get-it-over-quick" philosophy.
Modern players, addicted to this power technique and emphasis on attack, would do well to pause and listen to what a famous predecessor has to say about ground strokes, patience and methods of breaking down an opponent's game.
The keenest tragedy of big-time tennis today is the deterioration of the ground stroke. Few master it. Most don't even try. Rallies have become rare in modern tennis and the complete player is an oddity, even among champions.
Tilden was the complete player. He served hard, volleyed well and was particularly strong off the ground.
Since he is speaking from an era of baseline specialists, Tilden makes some references in this book that can be ignored. "There are few players who force the net behind their service," he says in a statement that was true then but not now. However, when the old master discusses attack and defense, he is as sound as ever. Eighty percent of all points in tennis, he writes, are lost on errors and not won on earned points. "There is no attack without defense, and no defense will succeed without attack."
Nothing can tear down a player's confidence like forcing him into errors, says Tilden, and he recommends that every player study and use spin. Spin, he adds, has three purposes—"to gain control, to force your opponent to err, to change pace." He also throws in this advice: "Never allow a player to play the game he prefers if you can possibly force him to play any other. Never give a player a shot he likes to play."