RP, our sometimes contributor, will be writing a semi-regular "Sports Giant" column, a sort of guide to once-great athletes who have gone by the wayside. This is his first.
If you don't know who Bill Tilden is, it's probably because you didn't get fucked out of the final three credits of your senior-year spring semester, forcing you to take a history class focusing on The Roaring Twenties because your advisor is a talentless (and somewhat caustic) Tyrannosaurus Rex-like woman who you suspect of having man-parts underneath her patchwork hippy skirt. Or you're not a fan of tennis. Either way.
When Tilden flamboyantly cartwheeled onto the tennis scene in the 1920s, the sport was generally regarded as a refuge for rich kids with no athletic ability who wanted to look sporty. When he left the sport it was a whole new game, viewed as -- well, still a refuge for rich kids, but the athletic ability couldn't really be denied. Ditched were the slacks and wristwatches, brought in were the sweatbands and coital grunts. Through the sheer power of Tilden's athletic appeal, the sport was born unto the 1920s and his face was etched onto the decade alongside Babe Ruth and Jake Dempsey.
He won his first Wimbledon in 1920 at 27, an extraordinarily old age for a first major title by today's standards. Despite his age, he was referred to as indisputably the best player in the world for the next seven years. He was the Wimbledon's singles champion in 1920, '21, and '30, as well as U.S. singles champ in 1920-25 and again in '29. Tilden was often accused of "showmanship," which means he lost the first few sets on purpose in order to give the audience their money's worth. Which I personally appreciate. Like when a girl is giving you a handjob and you're thinking "This sucks," but then at the 11th hour she decides to finish you off in her mouth. It's just like that but with tennis.
He approached the game in a well-rounded manner, playing out of the backcourt and relying heavily on tactical positioning. He had a powerful serve, and serviceable weapons in his lobs and dropshots, liking nothing more than to lure his opponent towards the net, then delivering a killing blow to the back corner. His method of play allowed him to continue playing through chronic knee injuries and an amputated middle finger (!!) on his racquet hand.
Bill continued to play well into his 40s, and spent his money lavishly; writing, producing, and starring in his own Broadway plays, all of which were assumedly about a tennis player who people should take seriously as an intellectual. All of them were both critical and commercial failures, and he lost pretty much all his cash before he died even though he was born into a hefty trust fund and was one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. Before he kicked it (the bucket, not the rhymes), however, he fell into that one pesky trap that seems to catch all great tennis players (I'm lookin' at you, Sampras*) -- Kiddy-diddling. No longer blessed with the athletic ability to pick the meat off of the bones of opponents in competitive tennis, he turned to chicken-hawking his way around Sunset Blvd., where he was caught with his hands down the pants of a young boy.
The charges were dropped from "lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor" to "contributing to the delinquency of a minor," but back home in New Jersey we probably would have called it "jerking off a kid." Fortunately, in 1946 athletes actually went to prison, so Bill spent the next 7 1/2 months regretting his actions. He spent another 10 months in prison in 1949 for breaking the terms of his probation. By "breaking the terms of his probation, I mean "molesting a 16-year-old." Now, molesting a 16-year-old is normally a felony, but his celebrity status stepped in at the last moment to prove that he deserved special treatment. And c'mon, he's a tennis star. Who are we to question the judge's decision?
Because high profile tennis stars are more judgemental than me, they started giving each other the "Who invited Bill?" look at parties he'd show up at, such was the velocity at which his star plummeted after the incidents of kid-fucking. Despite the revolution he caused within the sport, he died without a dime to his name, of a stroke, at the age of 60.
Tilden will forever be remembered not for his savviness with underage boys, however, but for his many on-court talents, including his mastery of strategy of tactics, as well as his published texts, analyzing the finer points of the game. And of course his singing voice.