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Hero with a Tragic Flaw
Frank Deford
January 13, 1975
The green theater is lighted by the sun; there is silence and the play begins. Big Bill Tilden, racket in hand, enters from the shadows, giving all his gifts to a game he made his life
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January 13, 1975

Hero With A Tragic Flaw

The green theater is lighted by the sun; there is silence and the play begins. Big Bill Tilden, racket in hand, enters from the shadows, giving all his gifts to a game he made his life

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Tilden was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 10, 1893 mm and christened William Tatem Tilden Jr., a name he hated because everybody called him Junior or June. Around his 25th birthday he changed the Jr. to II. He learned tennis at the age of seven at the family summer home in the Catskills, but the first clear vision of him as a player does not arise until a decade later when he was playing for Germantown Academy. Even at this small private school Tilden was not good enough to be No. 1. One day he was struggling—slugging everything—when Frank Deacon, one of his young friends, came by. Even then all of Tilden's friends were younger than he. At the end of a point, Deacon called in encouragement, "Hey, June, take it easy."

Tilden stopped dead and, with what became a characteristic gesture, he whirled to face the boy, put his hands on his hips and glared at him. "Deacon," he said, "I'll play my own sweet game."

And so he did, every day of his life. "I can stand crowds only when I am working in front of them," he wrote, "but then I love them." The crowds and the game may have been substitutes for sex. For a large part of his life, all the evidence suggests, he was primarily asexual; it was not until he began to fade as an athlete that his homosexual proclivities really took over. Throughout his career many tennis people knew the truth (the United States Lawn Tennis Association shuddered that it would out), but homosexuality was a taboo subject then, and it was kept from the public.

Glaring at a linesman, as he had at young Frank Deacon, Tilden certainly could appear swishy—"Who is this fruit?" Ty Cobb is supposed to have said the first time he saw Tilden—but all effeminacy vanished once he started playing. Tilden always minced about far more in the theater than on the court, and questioning line calls was, indisputably, theater to him.

Playing, he moved with a natural grace that was not unlike dancing, an activity he also had a talent for. Slim, double-jointed, with long arms and legs, Tilden had a remarkably functional athletic build. The boxing coach at Yale once tried to get him to take up the sport, marveling that he had "the most amazing footwork I've ever seen." He had wide, clothes-hanger shoulders and thin hips; he stood just over 6'1" and weighed only 155. But Tilden worked at the illusion of size—Big Bill!—and almost all of his living contemporaries still refer to him as having been 6'3" or 6'4". They are amazed to learn the truth.

At a time when men wore hats, Tilden went uncovered. He wanted to be recognized, and he was, almost universally, abroad as well as in the U.S. He was the personification of tennis for two full decades, even long past his flower. As late as 1941, when Tilden was 48, a tour with Don Budge, then at the peak of his game, was arranged only because Tilden could serve as his opponent.

While Tilden was no match for the much younger Budge on those grueling one-night stands, he could play with anybody for a set right up until he died. During World War II, when Tilden was 50, Gardnar Mulloy organized a tennis exhibition for the Navy. Mulloy was to play Ted Schroeder, the Forest Hills champion, while Tilden, for old time's sake, was scheduled to play a nobody in the preliminary. "Let me play Schroeder," Tilden said to Mulloy.

Mulloy demurred. He was not anxious to see the old guy embarrassed by the world's amateur champion, but Tilden persisted, so Mulloy finally gave in. Tilden went out and pulverized Schroeder 6-2, 6-2.

"How did you do that, Bill?" Mulloy asked, amazed.

"I never lose to people I hate," Tilden snapped, and then he turned and walked off.

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