Thursday, November 19, 2009

Big Bill Tilden

Big Bill Tilden
Most young players today know little about him. Bill Tilden was the first great international tennis superstar. He was responsible for bringing tennis out from the days when it was just a genteel country club pastime into today's modern age of big-time competitive tennis. 

From 1920 to 1926, an era before jet travel, Tilden did not lose a single tennis match on the major circuit of any real significance, sweeping through Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

He was a master showman and a brilliant student of the game. His instructional book Match Play and the Spin of the Ball  stands as a timeless tennis classic.

Tilden's all-court attacking game was also far ahead of his time - except of course for those long pants!

Elements of his tennis style blazed a trail in his day - his "open stance", as well as other shots such his deep forehand slice shot, and masterful "American Twist" kick serve. His famous "Cannonball" flat serve, reputedly clocked at over 150MPH with the old wood rackets, was legendary in his era. 

In 1950, the Sportswriters of America voted Tilden the best player of the half-century, without any real dissent. A exceptional tribute albeit against the backdrop of a tragic personal life.

For anyone who wants to read more about Tilden and his era, please see: Sports Writer Frank Deford's brilliant biography titled Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and Tragedy, (Simon and Schuster, 1976, reprinted in paperback, Hall of Fame Edition, 2004). 

I also suggest reading the New York Times Article on Bill Tilden in August 2009.

Bill Tilden: A Tennis Star Defeated Only by Himself, Karen Crouse (August 30, 2009)

Best, Gary

PS#1: Some quotes from Tilden you might find interesting:

"There is no sensation in the sporting world so thoroughly enjoyable to me as that when I meet a tennis ball just right in the very middle of my racquet and smack it, just right, where my opponent should be but is not."

"Tennis is more than just a sport. It's an art, like the ballet. Or like a performance in the theater."

"In these days of modern tennis a player is as strong as his weakest stroke."

"Never change a winning game; always change a losing one."

"Never let your opponent see the same shot twice."

"What is the future of the tennis game? ... As one of the champions of today, I see vistas of progress ahead, of which I glimpse only a bit, but which the champions of tomorrow will have explored and developed. Where are these lanes of progress? Not from the backcourt. Not from the net. It is rather in the use of the forecourt for sharp angled shots, in the use of the mid-court volley, the half volley and rising bounce shots, that future progress lies. Every player who desires to succeed in the future must equip himself with every shot in tennis and then strive to explore the mysteries of the forecourt."

PS#2: A new book is to be published on Tilden in Sept. 2010 by Roger Kahn:

(Kahn, author of baseball classic The Boys of Summer, is considered one the preeminent sports writers in America.)

Before His Time: Bill Tilden, By Roger Kahn (2011)

PS#3: What others said about Tilden in his time:

"[T]he greatest tennis player the world has seen...William Tatem Tilden 2nd was his name. He was the autocrat of the courts as no other player has been since, an absolute monarch in a period when American tennis was at it most resplendent and great players were developed in many lands. He was not only the supreme, the most complete player of all time; he was also one of the most colorful and controversial figures the world of sports has known...He was the master of his time and for all time." Allison Danzig, New York Times Sportswriter, quoted from Fireside Book of Tennis, Simon and Schuster, 1972, Pages 172 - 180.

"When Tilden was Tilden, nobody could touch him. In fact, nobody could compare with him. And King William knew it and reveled in it...He bestrode the tennis world like a Colossus between whose legs the lesser figures of the game ran about and found themselves dishonorable graves." John Kieran, The Ruler of the Courts, Macmillan Company, 1941.

"William T. Tilden 2nd, is a master of all styles of play and a bewildering variety of strokes. He habitually varies his topspin drive with heavy undercut slice, uses one of a dozen different services, and varies the length and pace of his strokes so that his opponent is never quite sure what to expect. Tilden possesses an uncommon fleetness of foot and an extraordinary reach and suppleness. Combined with this unparalleled equipment is a tennis brain of the first order, which makes him quick to discern, and profit by, the mistakes of an opponent." Samuel Hardy, Captain, U.S. Davis Cup Team 1920, quoted in Tennis for the Expert, William T. Tilden 2nd, American Sports Publishing Co., 1930.

"The Thin Man: An Homage to Bill Tilden"

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