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June 5, 1953: The day American tennis legend Bill Tilden passed away

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back in time to relive a tennis event which happened on this specific day. On June 5, 1953, Bill Tilden, the first American tennis legend, passed away at the age of 60

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What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, June 5, 1953, the first American tennis legend, Bill Tilden, died from heart complications at the age of 60. Amongst other feats, “Big Bill”, one of the most famous athletes in the 1920s and 1930s, had claimed six consecutive titles at the US National Championships (1920-1925) and led his team to win the Davis Cup seven times. However, despite his popularity at the time, Tilden would not always get the credit he deserved for his achievements, who were clouded by his two arrests for sexual misconduct with teenage boys in the late 1940s.

Early years:  family drama and late interest in tennis

Although he was born in a wealthy family, on February 10, 1893, Bill Tilden’s early life was marked by sorrow. Three of his siblings had died before he was born, and he grew up being overprotected by his mother. He started playing tennis with his older brother, Herbert, and although he showed decent skills, no one could predict that he would one day become such a great player. In 1911, his mother died from Bright’s disease, leaving the 18-year-old Tilden in shock. Four years later, in 1915, his father died from a kidney infection in July, and on September 22, his brother Herbert died of pneumonia. According to Sports Illustrated, “Tilden fell deeper into mourning. He left Penn a semester short of graduation and seems, for some time, to have done nothing more than sit in his room at Aunt Betsy’s and listen to his records.”

Aged 22, Tilden then devoted his life to tennis and constantly improved. From 1914 to 1917, he won the Philadelphia championship, and in 1918 and 1919, he finished runner-up at the US National Championships. He spent the winter of 1919-1920 improving his backhand: a few months of practice transformed his weakest shot and turned Tilden into the unbeatable player who would live in tennis history.

A career by the numbers: the greatest player of his time

Bill Tilden triumphed at the US National Championships for the first time in 1920. He remained undefeated at Forest Hills until 1926, claiming six consecutive titles. Throughout the 1920s, “Big Bill”, who was considerably taller than most of his opponents, left most of the players of his time clueless, relying on a powerful serve, a massive forehand, and great tactics. He took the physical part of the game to a new level, and throughout the 1920s, he showed little mercy to his rivals. 

“No man ever bestrode sports as Tilden did,” according to the famous sportswriter Frank Deford. “It was not just that he could not be beaten, it was as if he had invented the game.”

Let’s have a look at some records set by Tilden in his prime:

  • From 1920 to 1926, he won 51 consecutive matches in major tournaments, including a 42-winning streak at the US Nationals
  • In 1924-1925, he went on a 98-winning streak, holding a 68-0 record in 1924, which makes him the only player to have remained undefeated in an entire season
  • Between 1922 and 1926, he reached 52 consecutive finals
  • In his career, he scored 106 double-bagels (6-0, 6-0) and 11 triple bagels (6-0, 6-0, 6-0)

In the late 1920s, his domination was challenged by the French Musketeers, especially Rene Lacoste and Henri Cochet (against whom he suffered his first loss in seven years at the US Nationals, in 1926, (6-8, 6-1, 6-3, 1-6, 8-6). Tilden claimed the last of his 12 Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon, in 1930, at the age of 37, defeating Wilmer Allison in the final (6-3, 9-7, 6-4), and soon after, he turned professional. Even though he wasn’t as dominant as a pro, he still won the US Pro in 1931 and 1935, the Wembley Pro in 1935 and 1937, and the French Pro in 1934. However, in those days, professional tennis players spent most of their time travelling and playing one-night gigs, and even when some younger players began to regularly take the edge on him, it was Bill Tilden that most of the spectators wanted to see.

One of the most famous athletes in the world

Bill Tilden can be considered as the first tennis superstar, the player who made tennis a popular sport in the United States, leading the Davis Cup team to seven titles, and becoming the first American to triumph at Wimbledon.

“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.”

“People have no idea how big of a force he was 100 years ago. (…) Tilden was known all over the world and he was just an incredible majestic figure,” said Allen Hornblum, author of American Colossus: Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis, according to 

At the top of his fame, Tilden was well acquainted with many Hollywood stars, and his most famous friend was undoubtedly Charlie Chaplin. 

After his career: a reputation ruined by sexual charges

In 1946, Bill Tilden’s reputation was ruined when he was arrested and charged with soliciting a 14-year-old boy. At first, “Big Bill” did not panic, as he thought that his influential friends could help him out. However, he was sentenced to jail, where he spent seven months. He was banned from many country clubs, which prevented him from giving tennis lessons, and in January 1949, he was arrested a second time. After that, all doors were closed for the former legend. In 1953, his old friend Frank Feltrop invited him to attend the National Professional Hardcourt Championships, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. However, at the last minute, the hotel manager summoned Feltrop and, according to Sports Illustrated, told him that “(he was) sorry, but (he) had a hotel to run; the Beverly Wilshire could not be identified with any degenerate ex-con”. 

“Right there I think he knew he didn’t have a hell of a lot to live for anymore,” said Feltrop.

However, Tilden, whose health dramatically decreased, planned to compete in the US Pro Championships, in Cleveland, where he was supposed to fly on June 6, 1953. On June 5 though, he was found dead in his apartment: his heart had finally given up. At the time of his death, the former tennis star had a net worth of $88.

What next

According to The New York Times, Bill Tilden’s legacy can be compared to Michael Jackson’s in music: unassailable, but mitigated for some by his conduct.

“I think that’s a very good analogy,” Deford said. “Tennis people tried to hush up Tilden’s personal life. They actually were afraid it would hurt the sport. I think that’s why nobody ever celebrates any of his achievements.”

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