June 5, 1953—He had dominated his sport as few if any athletes have ever done, before or since. But when Bill Tilden died at age 60 in a Los Angeles boarding house, he was alone, down to his last $88, and shunned by a tennis community that once lionized him. More than 60 years before Jerry Sandusky, he had shocked sports-mad America by being arrested and jailed twice for illicit relations with youths.
In the 1920s “Golden Age of Sports,” “Big Bill” ranked with baseball’s Babe Ruth, golf’s Bobby Jones, boxing’s Jack Dempsey, and football’s Red Grange as undisputed masters. His arsenal—chops, slices, spins, along with a “Cannonball” serve all the more devastating for being so uncommon and unexpected—utterly unnerved opponents. His record atop his sport was astonishing:
* the only man to have won the American singles title six years in a row;
* America’s top-ranked player every year between 1924 and 1934;
* the first American to win at Wimbledon, which he did on three times, the last occasion at age 38.
The physical grace with which he carried himself on court was belied by his determination to reach the top. Unlike many of today’s players, he not only started late in the sport, but even then did not display particular ability for a while. (He couldn’t even make his college team at the University of Pennsylvania, and did not reach the finals at Forest Hills until he was 25.)
Once he became a champion, Tilden was intent on playing “my own sweet game," which could involve:
*deliberately making mistakes and falling behind to make his matches more competitive;
*imitating his opponent’s game just to see if he could do it better; and
*giving points away when he felt a line judge made a mistake in his favor.
The tennis court was never really a big enough arena for Tilden. He also aspired to the stage and screen, even though his acting ability was, at best, limited. (He only got to play Dracula on Broadway by ponying up the money himself.) He counted stars like Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as friends, and even gave some tennis lessons.
In one of his avocations, author, Tilden inadvertently anticipated his own fall, in a novel called Glory's Net (1930), when the protagonist’s career and personal life disintegrate. For a long time, he had managed to repress his homosexual instincts. But after his travels in his late 30s, particularly in Weimar Berlin, his associations with youths became more noticeable—and dangerous.
One who had taken note of this was Vladimir Nabokov. His novel Lolita features a former tennis champion that Humbert Humbert allows to teach the title character knowing that this gay instructor will never seduce the girl. As if the circumstances surrounding this former pro hadn’t been enough of a clue to the inspiration, Nabokov planted a clue in his name, Ned Litam – a characteristically wicked bit of wordplay, “Ma Tilden” spelled backwards.
His reputation was becoming so bad into the Forties that teenage boys who practiced with him were advised not to get into a car or a room alone with him. Then, within three years, he was jailed twice—first for engaging in a sexual act with a teenage prostitute on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, then for groping a teenage hitchhiker.
After that, Tilden became a pariah—blackballed by clubs that once threw wide its doors for him, and even erased from the register of graduates maintained by his alma mater, Penn. As late as last year, an attempt to erect a plaque honoring his accomplishments at the entrance of Tilden’s home court, the Germantown Cricket Club, was rejected. His case, not unlike the Metropolitan Opera's James Levine, throws into sharp relief the question of how much to continue to honor a figure of major accomplishments whose conduct exceeds social norms and the law.
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