"Life would revolve around the friends at that time. He never looked beyond a day ahead or back past 1919, either," says Junior Coen, now a Kansas City investment broker. "He took me and these other little kids and helped us in order to get our comradeship. God knows, everyone needs some friends. Then he moved on, discarded us like products, so to speak, when we could serve no more useful purpose in his life. When I look back, I question whether Bill ever had a real friend."
Increasingly, Tilden became more dogmatic, more set in his ways and in his opinions. His was not a real world anymore. "You see, Bill wanted everything to be perfect," says Sandy Wiener, now a retired Detroit executive. In Tilden's tennis fiction, players were faced more often with moral dilemmas than with balky forehands. (Typically: "Had the umpire seen? He turned away with bated breath. He knew by all the ethics of the game he should speak and admit he had touched the net, and yet....")
His nephew and namesake, William Tilden III, a New York financial executive, says, "Uncle Bill's problem was that he never grew up. He always saw everything in black and white, and he felt down in his heart that people who were wrong deserved to be punished."
Curiously, when it came to evaluating players he was often much too generous. Cochet was taciturn and somewhat lazy, but he could hit the ball early, on the rise, and for that Tilden came to vastly overrate him and even to play him tentatively. Many times he graciously said that the best he ever played was in a loss to Lacoste, suggesting that his very best was surpassed by another man's.
Lacoste and then Cochet defeated Tilden in 1926 after he seriously injured his knee. But the next year they beat him four more times, all in close, even disputed, matches, but proving that at age 34 he was at last vulnerable. That fall of 1927, after Tilden and Hunter put the U.S. ahead of the French 2-1 in the Challenge Round at the Germantown Cricket Club, Tilden met Lacoste in the fourth match. Cochet had carried Big Bill to four sets two days before and Borotra and Brugnon, lobbing, prolonging every rally from the baseline, had made Tilden go five sets in the doubles the previous day. The picadors had done their job, and Lacoste was ready to devour Tilden, suddenly grown old, in the final match. Tilden- Lacoste was for the cup. Big Bill was 34, the Crocodile 23 and Tilden knew he had to win quickly, if at all.
He came out firing the hard one, which is what the Musketeers wanted. Suzanne Lenglen, the Maid Marvel, had told them, "If you don't make him use that cannonball, he'll be 60 before you beat him." Lacoste set out to keep everything in play. "The monotonous regularity with which that unsmiling, drab, almost dull, man returned the best I could hit...often filled me with a wild desire to throw my racket at him," Tilden wrote later. In the first set Lacoste did not hit a single winner, but he won it 6-3, as Tilden aimed for the lines and rushed the net. The American did win the second set 6-4, but Lacoste closed out a tiring old man from there.
There were 15,186 people jammed into Germantown. Although it was his home club, Tilden had generally not been the spectators' favorite there once he had established his superiority. But now, as he strode from the court, head bowed, alone in defeat, the people began to rise and cheer him Many began to cry for him. Tilden, totally unfamiliar with this response, was, for once, at a loss as an actor. At last he thought to raise his hands above his head, like a boxing champ, and received another tumultuous roar.
Lacoste was so emotionally spent by the whole experience, by the fulfillment of his great quest, that when he watched the final match, sitting with Tilden in hot sunshine, he wore two sweaters and an overcoat against a nervous chill. Johnston was making his last major appearance, and he was no match for the young, indefatigable Cochet. "God bless you, Little Bill," a woman called down near the end to the pitiful tiny figure, and people began to cry again. The cup had passed abroad after seven years. "At Philadelphia," Lacoste explained to the French people upon his triumphant return, " Tilden could not be beaten by one player; he was beaten by a team."
Tilden was to win Forest Hills again, in 1929, and Wimbledon the following July, at age 37, but his final great amateur match, in a sense his most amazing victory of all, came under the most exceptional circumstances in the spring of 1928 in the first French defense of the cup. The stadium at Roland Garros had been constructed specifically as a place where people could watch the Musketeers take on Tilden. Then, just days before the match, with the money in the till, the USLTA decided that since the Americans had no chance, now was the time to get Tilden.
Before he became champion Tilden had been a reporter for the Philadelphia Ledger, covering sports and theater. On forms, under "occupation," he would list himself as a newspaperman. All during the '20s, as the USLTA bristled, he was paid to write tennis columns. Now the USLTA invoked the spirit of pure amateurism and banned the unchaste Tilden.