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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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"What?" someone asked, hardly looking up.

"Before I woke up he took $400 off my bureau and went out and bought himself a watch," Tilden said. That was how a great deal of the money went.

Occasionally during this period, Tilden began to allude to his situation, and in a couple of instances spoke passionately in defense of homosexuality. This man of high honor and wrathful righteousness was at last coming to grips with the strange thing within him that society considered illegal and sinful. His walk and some hand movements became more effeminate, but he was no less the player, no less the star. It was still, as ever, Tilden and Tennis.

In June of 1939, with the war hovering in the wings, Tilden, age 46, was included when a new tour began in London, at Wembley, and when he played, Al Laney, his old nemesis, was moved to write, almost lyrically: "Before Budge was born Tilden was a great player [and] the fire is still there, and the cunning and the showmanship.... He came to play Budge, the greatest player of the day, for the first time, with the air of a master about to give a lesson to a promising pupil. He strode majestically onto the court and made you feel, in spite of yourself, a bit sorry for Budge.... All through the match it was Tilden you were watching, and not Budge. When it was over, he strode off the court as if he were the victor....

"[And then] he was out there giving 20 years to Vines and beating him, outhitting the hardest hitter in the game. Yes, outhitting Vines. He won 6-3, 10-8, and when he came safely past match point with as hard a forehand drive to the corner as any player ever made, they nearly tore the house down. They shouted and stamped on the floor and told him there was no one like him and never had been. They were right about that, too, and it was sweet music to the old gentleman's ears.

" Tilden has made more money out of tennis in his time than anyone else, but they say he is broke now, willing to play anywhere for anything from 50 bucks up. So they're taking him along on this tour. They should be glad he's going along because they're lucky to have him.... The old guy is not through yet, by a long shot."

But he was. There were to be very few more glory days and many more sad ones, so that in the end much of his accomplishment was dimmed and much of his memory clouded. Tilden's niece, Miriam Ambrose, daughter of his brother Herbert, has written a lovely encomium entitled, "My Father's Brother." It talks of love and faith and days long gone, and it also includes these thoughts:

"In essence, none of us really begin on the date of our birth, the forces that contrive us having long been present; nor do we exactly complete ourselves at the hour of our death, leaving as we do lingering impressions that fade slowly from people's minds. Something of Uncle Bill was evolving in our predecessors from a time nobody can pinpoint, and his having moved through our midst stimulated emotions and reactions in us that are still engaging.... In our [family's] view, not much of what is generally known about him actually inspired his superlative tennis.... Somewhere in the past, in his home, in his school, among the people who nurtured him, lies the key to the complexities that enabled him to do just one thing better than anyone else could do it."

What did make this strange man great?

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