Not only did the other members of the U.S. team rush to cable columns for their newspapers, but the story was Page One in Europe and the U.S. Franco-American relations were threatened. Prodded by President Coolidge, the U.S. ambassador to France, Myron Herrick, ironed out a deal which allowed the French to see Big Bill by delaying his suspension until Forest Hills.
Tilden did not know about this. Furious at his ban but glorying in his new role as a certified international martyr, delivering impassioned speeches to a grateful world press, Tilden was utterly flabbergasted when the Ambassador rose at the luncheon the day before the matches and announced, " Mr. Tilden is going to play." He rushed out to the courts with Junior Coen and practiced for the first time in days. "He was practically hysterical," Coen says. "He couldn't hit a damn thing so, finally, he just stormed off."
Tilden drew Lacoste in the opening match and was posted a 2 to 1 underdog. Lacoste had won their previous four meetings and now he had Tilden on his home court, before a manic Gallic crowd and a swirling wind. Lacoste won the first set 6-1, and it looked like a breeze for the Frenchman. But then Tilden threw his big game out the window and started slicing every ball. As steady as Lacoste was, Tilden outsteadied him. Each ball Lacoste hit came back, spinning like a Frisbee. Suddenly, Lacoste found himself playing a better Lacoste. On the slow clay, teetering toward exhaustion, the old man won in five sets. Lott was so excited he jumped out of the stands and lost a bracelet he had just bought for his girl. To this day in awe of what he saw, he calls it "a display of versatility that has never been equalled."
In the locker room Lacoste slumped, confused and despairing, and cried. "Two years ago I knew at last how to beat him," he said. "Now, on my own court, he beats me. I never knew how the ball would come off the racket, he concealed it so. I had to wait to see how much it was spinning, and sometimes it didn't spin at all. Is he not the greatest player of them all?"
Despite having vowed often that he would never turn pro, Tilden signed in 1931, and promptly—typically—became the most ardent professional in the world. The Tilden Tennis Tour that first year was little more than his own triumphal procession, and in succeeding years the amateur champions—Cochet, Vines, Perry—were shoved out on the stage, mere ingenues, to appear with the old idol. It seems to have been largely incidental who won or lost; the point was to show people Big Bill.
The enterprise was profitable, even if Tilden was an atrocious businessman; he was so generous that he often gave back guarantees to promoters whose matches did not draw so well. Nonetheless, although Tilden grossed $100,000 or so in Depression dollars for several years in the '30s, he was running into financial problems by the end of the decade. His father's inheritance, often referred to as a fortune, was in fact no more than $80,000. By now, Tilden's aunt had died and his cousin had moved to England, so he had lost his room, as well as most ties to Germantown. He continued to spend profligately and invest whimsically. In 1939 he came back to the U.S. only after Vinnie Richards, then a Dunlop executive, agreed to pay off both the IRS and a $2,329 bill at the Algonquin Hotel.
Significantly, it was during this period, after he had left the international limelight, that he became more active homosexually—though, as always, only with teen-age boys. While there is no evidence that Tilden was ever blackmailed, some incidents were hushed up and the Tilden Tennis Tour prudently avoided a number of cities. There is a widely held story, unsubstantiated, that he was severely thrashed by a father in Philadelphia. Certainly, he grew much less circumspect, especially after a couple of visits to Cabaret Germany. For the first time Tilden saw homosexuality out in the open, even tolerated in some circles, and it relaxed his puritan instincts.
Suddenly, a traveling ball boy became a staple on the tour. Usually the teen-ager in that role was German, and always he would travel alone with Big Bill in his blue Buick sedan or share a train compartment with him. One morning, while the other players were sitting in the observation car, Tilden came running up to them, distraught. He said he was going to throw himself off the train. "We all grabbed him," Lott recalls, "not because we cared whether Tillie jumped or not but because he was our bread and butter."
They calmed him down and asked him what was the matter. "Fritzi's locked me out of the compartment," Tilden said, nearly sobbing.
A few days later, at a hotel, he came into the lobby where a few of the players were sitting. This time he was all smiles. "Fritzi did the cutest thing this morning," he said.