(Reuters) – Bill Tilden’s star shone brightly during the golden age of American sports in the 1920s but his legacy as the most dominant tennis player of his generation remains overshadowed by his off-court behaviour.
Born into wealth and privilege, Tilden had showed promise with a racket at an early age during summers spent at the family home in the Catskill Mountains, New York.
Having lost both his parents and older brother Herbert by the time he was 22 years of age, however, tennis became Tilden’s primary means of coping.
Using unorthodox backcourt play and possessing a cannonball serve, Tilden’s influence on American tennis is hard to overstate.
In 1920, he became the first American to win the Wimbledon men’s singles title, and he won every major tournament he entered for six years, including six straight U.S. Open titles.
Tilden also led his country to seven Davis Cup victories, often sharing sporting headlines with baseball great Babe Ruth, golfer Bobby Jones and boxer Jack Dempsey.
“Playing for himself, for his country, for posterity, he was invincible,” wrote Frank Deford in his biography ‘Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and The Tragedy’. “Tilden simply was tennis in the public mind.”
Tilden’s instructional guide “Match Play and the Spin of the Ball” examined tennis theory like never before, and future Grand Slam champions including Jack Kramer and John Newcombe swore by it.
With his artistry and flair, “Big Bill” took tennis to mainstream America, only to be shunned for his off-court behaviour.
Tilden, who was openly gay, had his reputation destroyed in 1946 when he was charged with soliciting a 14-year-old boy.
He served seven-and-a-half months in prison, but was arrested again in January 1949 after picking up a 16-year-old hitchhiker.
He was released in December 1949 and days later an Associated Press poll named Tilden the greatest tennis player of the first half of the 20th century but his personal life continued to be troubled.
Tilden was banished from several professional tennis clubs and tournaments, and his penchant for self destruction continued as he drained his wealth on producing less-than-successful Broadway shows.
When he died of a heart attack at the age of 60, Tilden was preparing to play in the U.S. Pro Championships in Cleveland.
“Big Bill” was virtually airbrushed out of tennis history, with a net worth of $88.