Roger Federer And The Ghost Of Bill Tilden

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Roger Federer is looking to join Bill Tilden as the only player to win six straight U.S. men’s singles titles when he plays Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 US Open final Monday. Tilden won his six straight men’s singles titles from 1920 to 1926 – and he earned a seventh title again in 1929 in a final that was played 80 years ago exactly to the day of Federer’s match with del Potro.

Roger Federer and the ghost of Bill Tilden

Roger Federer and the ghost of Bill Tilden

In that match in 1929, Tilden, 36, won his seventh – and final – U.S. men’s singles crown, defeating fellow “oldie” 35-year-old Francis Hunter 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 in the championship tilt. Tilden’s seventh title tied him with Richard Sears and Bill Larned for the record of most U.S. men’s singles titles. At age 36, Tilden became the oldest U.S. singles champion since Larned won his last two titles in 1910 and 1911 at ages 37 and 38. Wrote Allison Danzig of the New York Times, “The match went to five sets, with Tilden trailing 2 to 1, but there was never any question as to the ultimate reckoning and the final two chapters found the once invincible monarch of the courts electrifying the gallery as of yore with a withering onslaught of drives and service aces that brooked no opposition.” Bud Collins, In his book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS, calls the 1929 U.S. men’s final “The Geezer’s Gala” as the combined age of both finalists – 71 years – ranks second only to the 1908 Wimbledon final played between Arthur Gore, 40 and Herbert Roper Barrett, 34.

Collins, in his book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS tome, summarizes the career of Tilden below in his book excerpt.

Bill Tilden

United States (1893–1953)

Hall of Fame—1959

If a player’s value is measured by the dominance and influ­ence he exercises over a sport, then William Tatem “Big Bill” Til­den II could be considered the greatest player in the history of tennis.

From 1920 through 1926, he dominated the game as has no player before or since. During those years he was invincible in the United States, won Wimbledon three of the six times he com­peted there, and captured 13 successive singles matches in the Davis Cup challenge round against the best players from Austra­lia, France and Japan.

With the Bills, Tilden and Johnston, at the core, the U.S. seized the Davis Cup from Australasia in 1920, and kept it a record seven years. But by 1927, the Bills were no longer impervious, and France took over, 3-2, on the last day, in Philadelphia—Rene Lacoste beating Big Bill, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, and Henri Cochet floor­ing Little Bill, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.

As an amateur (1912-30), Tilden won 138 of 192 tournaments, lost 28 finals and had a 907-62 match record—a phenomenal .936 average. His last major triumph, the Wimbledon singles of 1930, gave him a total of 10 majors, standing as the male high until topped by Roy Emerson (12) in 1967. Bill missed another by two match points he held against René Lacoste in the 1927 French final. He won the U.S. mixed with Mary K. Browne in 1913-14, but had been beaten in the first round of the 1912 singles at New­port by fellow Philadelphian Wallace Johnson (whom he would defeat in the 1921 final). He didn’t feel sure enough of his garne to try again until 1916, in New York. He was 23, a first-round loser to a kid named Harold Throckmorton. Ignominious, tardy starts in an illustrious career that would contain seven U.S. titles and 69 match victories (a record 42 straight between 1920 and 1926).

By 1918, a war-riddled year, he got to the final, to be blown away by a bullet-serving Lindley Murray, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5. But he’d be back: seven more finals in a row. In 1918, Big Bill’s electrifying rivalry with Little Bill Johnston began—six U.S. finals in seven years, more than any other two men skirmished for a major. After losing to Little Bill in 1919, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, Tilden, disgusted with his puny defensive backhand, hid out all winter at the indoor court of a friend, J.D.E. Jones, in Providence, retooling. He emerged with a brand new, fearsome, multifaceted backhand and com­plete game, and was ready to conquer the world. He did not lose to Little Bill again in a U.S. final, and held an 11-6 edge in their rivalry. His concentration could be awesome, as during a two-tournament stretch in 1925 when he won 57 straight games at Glen Cove, N.Y., and Providence. Trailing Alfred Chapin, one of few to hold a win over him, 3-4 in the final, he ran it out, 6-4, 6-0, 6-0. Staying in tune on the next stop, he won three straight 6-0, 6-0 matches, then 6-0, 6-1. Another 6-1 set made it 75 of 77 games.

When he first won Wimbledon in 1920, over defender Gerald Patterson 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, he was 27 years old, an advanced age for a champion. But he had a long and influential career, and at the age of 52 in 1945, he was still able to push the 27-year-old Bobby Riggs to the limit in a professional match.

Tilden, a right-hander, born Feb. 10, 1893, in Philadelphia, had the ideal tennis build, 6-foot-2, 155 pounds, with thin shanks and big shoulders. He had speed and nimbleness, coordination and perfect balance. He also had marked endurance, despite smok­ing cigarettes incessantly when not playing. In stroke equipment, he had the weapons to launch an overpowering assault and the resources to defend and confound through a variety of spins and pace when the opponent was impervious to sheer power. Surface didn’t matter. He won the U.S. Clay Court singles seven times: 1918 and 1922–27.

Nobody had a more devastating serve than Tilden’s cannon­ball, or a more challenging second serve than his kicking Amer­ican twist. No player had a stronger combination of forehand and backhand drives, supplemented by a forehand chop and backhand slice. Tilden’s mixture of shots was a revelation in his first appearance at Wimbledon. Patterson found his backcourt untenable and was passed over and over when he went to the net behind his powerful serve.

The backcourt was where Tilden played tennis. He was no advocate of the “big game”—the big serve and rush for the net for the instant volley coup. He relished playing tennis as a game of chess, matching wits as well as physical powers. The drop shot, at which he was particularly adroit, and the lob were among his disconcerting weapons.

His knowledge and mastery of spin has hardly ever been exceeded, as evidenced not only on the court but also in his Match Play and the Spin of the Ball—a classic written more than half a century ago. Yes, Tilden was a writer, too, but he longed to be an actor above anything else. Unsuccessful in his efforts to the point of sinking most of his family wealth, his tennis earnings and his writing royalties into the theater, he was happiest when playing on the heartstrings of a tennis gallery.

Intelligent and opinionated, he was a man of strong likes and dislikes. He had highly successful friends, both men and women, who were devoted to him, and there were others who disliked him and considered him arrogant and inconsiderate of officials and ball boys who served at his matches. He was con­standy wrangling with officers and committeemen of the USTA on Davis Cup policy and enforcement of the amateur rule, and in 1928, he was on the front pages of the American press when he was removed as captain and star player of the Davis Cup team, charged with violating the amateur rule with his press accounts of the Wimbledon Championships, in which he was competing. So angry were the French over the loss of the star member of the cast for the Davis Cup challenge round—the first ever held on French soil—that the American ambassador, Myron T. Herrick interceded for the sake of good relations between the countries, and Tilden was restored to the team.

When Tilden, in the opening match, beat René Lacoste, 1-6, 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, the French gallery suffered agony and cursed themselves for insisting that “Teel-den” be restored to the team. It all ended happily for them, however as the French won the other four matches and kept the Davis Cup. On Tilden’s return home, he was brought up on the charges of violating the rule at Wimbledon. He was found guilty and was suspended from play­ing in the U.S. Championships that year.

Eligible for the U.S. title again in 1929, after the lifting of his suspension, he won it for the seventh time, defeating his doubles partner, Frank Hunter, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. In 1930, he won Wimble­don for the third time, at the age of 37, over countryman Wilmer Allison, 6-3, 9-7, 6-4. After the U.S. Championships, in which he was beaten in the semis by champion John Doeg, he notified the USTA of his intention to make a series of motion pictures for profit, thus disqualifying himself for further play as an ama­teur. He was in the world’s Top 10 from 1919 through 1930, No. 1 a record six times (1920-25)—equalled by Pete Sampras in 1998—and in the U.S. Top 10 for 12 straight years from 1918, No. 1 a record 10 times, 1920–29.

In 1931, he entered upon a professional playing career, join­ing one-time partner Vinnie Richards, Germans Hans Nusslein and Roman Najuch, and Czech Karel Kozeluh. Tilden’s name revived pro tennis, which had languished since its inception in 1926 when Suzanne Lenglen went on tour. His joining the pros paved the way for Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry and Don Budge to leave the amateur ranks and play for big prize money. Tilden won his pro debut against Kozeluh, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, before 13,000 fans in Madison Square Garden.

Joining promoter Bill O’Brien, Tilden toured the country in 1932 and 1933, but the Depression was on and new blood was needed. Vines furnished it. Tilden and O’Brien signed him on, and in 1934 Tilden defeated Vines in the younger man’s pro debut, 8-6, 6-3, 6-2, before a turnaway crowd of 16,200 at Madison Square Garden. That year, Tilden and Vines went on the first of the great tennis tours, won by Vines, 47-26.

The tours grew in the 1930s and 1940s, and Tilden remained an attraction even though he was approaching the age of 50. For years he traveled across the country, driving by day and some­times all night and then going on a court a few hours after arriv­ing. At times, when he was managing his tour, he had to help set the stage for the matches.

Tragically, his activity and fortunes dwindled after his convic­tion on a morals charge (a time less understanding of homosexu­ality), and imprisonment in 1947, and again in 1949 for parole violation (both terms less than a year). He died of a heart attack under pitiful circumstances, alone and with few resources, on June 5, 1953, in Los Angeles. His bag was packed for a trip to Cleveland to play in the U.S. Pro Championships when perhaps the greatest tennis player of them all was found dead in his room.

MAJOR TITLES (21)—Wimbledon singles. 1920, 1921, 1930; U.S. singles, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1929; Wimbledon doubles, 1927; U.S. doubles, 1918, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1927; French mixed, 1930; U.S. mixed 1913, 1914, 1922, 1923. OTHER U.S.TITLES (19)—Indoor singles, 1920; Indoor doubles, 1919, 1920, with Vinnie Richards; 1926, with Frank Anderson; 1929, with Frank Hunter; Indoor mixed, 1921, 1922, with Molla Mallory; 1924, with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman; Clay Court singles, 1918, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927; Pro singles. 1931, 1935; Pro doubles, 1932, with Bruce Barnes; 1945, with Vinnie Richards. DAVIS CUP—1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 25-5 singles, 9-2 doubles. SINGLES RECORD IN THE MAJORS—French (14-3), Wimbledon (30-3). U.S. (69-7).

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