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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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In the 1922 finals, the most notable Big Bill-Little Bill confrontation, Johnston was ahead two sets to love and then two sets to one and 3-0 in the fourth. At the crossover, Mike Myrick of the USLTA could not contain his glee. "Well, Bill, it's been a great match," he said smugly.

"It's damn well going to be a great match," Tilden snapped back and he went out and won the next six games and then the fifth set. In the locker room Little Bill was shattered.

A few weeks later Tilden scratched the middle finger of his racket hand on a rusty fence and gangrene set in. He almost lost the whole arm, and he did lose nearly half of the finger. It affected the way he hit almost every stroke, and the stump pained him periodically for the rest of his life, often requiring him to shake hands left-handed, but he adjusted to the loss and followed it with his greatest years. Once he won 57 straight games.

In 1924 Johnston girded himself for one more challenge at Forest Hills and got to the finals without losing a set. By contrast, Tilden had become even more embroiled in various theatrical adventures and looked off form. "Billy's really out to get you," someone said to Tilden after he squeaked by Vinnie Richards in the semis.

"So I've heard," he replied.

"There's a lot of money bet around against you."

"I've heard that, too," Tilden said grimly. Now he was angry because it was being bandied about that he could only beat Little Bill on stamina.

So the next day Big Bill came into the warmup slamming every ball. Little Bill never knew what hit him. Tilden won the first five games, and finished off the match 6-1, 9-7, 6-2.

But along with this spectacular showman and player, this international celebrity, there was at all times another person, this child. At the height of his powers Tilden would return to Philadelphia for months at a time and retreat to his third-floor room in the row house in Germantown where he lived for 25 years with two maiden ladies, his aunt and an older cousin. There, by the hour, he would sit and listen to his music, classical and operatic. "If I had to give up tennis or music," he said, "I would give up tennis."

He also coached tennis, at Germantown Academy one year and at Penn for another, and with his teen-age prot�g�s he would take off on fall and spring weekends in his flashy black Marmon roadster and play small-town exhibitions. He never asked for any money; he just wanted the chance to be with his son figures—players like Vinnie Richards, Carl Fischer, Sandy Wiener, Don Strachan, Junior Coen. People now shake their heads or smirk whenever they hear reference to Tilden and little boys, but, in fact, his paternal instincts overwhelmed any sexual intentions. He never seems to have made advances to his pupils, whom he invariably referred to, each in turn, as "my heir" or "my successor."

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