Tilden's Demons

Peter Underwood

Halfway through his life, other factors began intruding on Tilden's tennis.

About mid-way through his life, Tilden's personal demons began nosing their way from the private into the public space. A chasm lay between the performer and the person behind it.

Who was behind Tilden's many masks? Nabokov's invented character of "Ma Tilden" (Click Here) suggests the answer: Big Bill Tilden, champion male athlete, was not only single and deeply alone, but homosexual and with a predilection for boys.

Increasingly, he found this difficult to keep quiet. Finally, the inevitable: in 1947 Tilden was nabbed with a teenage boy, hauled before the court, charged with indecency with minors, found guilty and sent to prison.

Now fame and honors meant nothing. Gone was the hero strutting the world stage. Instead he was a tired old queen, broke and ostracized by the society that had lionized him.

In his glory days Big Bill surrounded himself with people. In truth, he was always a loner. Now he was alone. And worst of all, banned from tennis, he could no longer practice his only creative outlet.

Where lay the seeds of such a fall? To appreciate the sad majesty of the aging pro, we need to delve into Tilden's family.

The Making of a Tragic Hero

William Tatem Tilden Junior was born at the end of the nineteenth century to a rich Philadelphia family. William's early life had all the appurtenances of comfort and security, including servants and horses. His father, William Tatem Senior, was a successful merchant. His mother, Linie, was also of good family and a fine musician. Yet by the time young William arrived in February 1893, the calm and security of the household had already been sundered.

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Peter Underwood is a doctor, writer, broadcaster, activist, and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. He has a long involvement with the Medical Association for Prevention of War, a group of health professionals who in 2009 founded the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons. He divides his time between peace work, medical education, growing fine wool, and writing. A passionate student of tennis since childhood, The Pros is his first nonfiction book.

The Pros: The Forgotten Era of Tennis

The Pros: The Forgotten Era of Tennis chronicles almost 40 years when the best players in the world were barred from competing in the biggest tournaments, including the Grand Slams. It focuses on the lives of careers of 8 players who dominated the traveling circus of pro tours around the world, from Bill Tilden to Rod Laver and all the champions in between, depicting the ruthless battles of these players for prize money and status as the best players in the world.

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