Excerpt: American Colossus

The following is an excerpt from American Colossus: Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis (March 2018) by Allen M. Hornblum. 

From Chapter 1: “A Game of Society”

There is no sensation in the sporting world so thoroughly enjoyable to me as that when I meet a tennis ball just right in the very middle of my racquet and smack it.

—William T. Tilden 2nd

The “bombshell announcement on the morning of July 19, 1928,” hit the sporting world with the force of a tropical typhoon. In addition to millions of flabbergasted sports fans around the globe, “the people of Paris and France” were particularly hard hit; they were said to be in a “state of shock.” As one exasperated observer recounted, “Without warning, without an intimation of any kind, the elaborate structure built by the French Federation . . . was wreaked as if hit by a cyclone.”1

Recriminations and statements of befuddlement and outrage were echoed in far-flung capitals from Brisbane and Tokyo to Stockholm and London. “Incomprehensible,” “ridiculous,” “utter folly,” “beyond understanding” were just a few of the reactions by stunned sports and editorial writers trying to make sense of it all. It was inexplicable that the greatest player in the history of tennis would be prevented from playing in the Davis Cup challenge round against France, the champion nation. And to have such mischief perpetrated by one’s own nation was truly mind-boggling.

Newspaper headlines and controversy were certainly no stranger to “Big Bill” Tilden, an iconic figure of the golden age of sports and the first American-born player to win the Wimbledon trophy. A transformational figure who popularized the sport, helped propel lawn tennis from exclusive country clubs to public playgrounds, and would one day professionalize the game, he was also a multitalented connoisseur of theatrical drama and classical music, an author of more than two dozen books and hundreds of magazine articles, and a bridge-playing enthusiast of championship caliber. Granted, he could be petulant, tiresomely difficult, and as demanding as an Indian prince, but he was also an athletic talent of Herculean proportions. Now he was being sanctioned for writing articles about what he was best known for and what he knew best. The entire episode was bizarre, but one thing was clear: the old-line oligarchs of the American amateur tennis federation were out to finally level him.

Tilden’s greatness, his exceptional prowess at lawn tennis, was universally recognized as the stuff of “genius.” Columnists and respected athletic authorities regularly referred to him as “the king of them all,” the “absolute monarch of the courts,”2 the “Napoleon of lawn tennis.”3 Only Babe Ruth rivaled him for sheer star power. But the Babe’s mythic stature was confined to American shores; Tilden’s was international.

Members of the American Davis Cup team practicing in Paris were devastated by the news and spoiling for a fight. Tilden was their hero, their leader; they began to organize a strike. They would refuse to play the host nation.

The French were even more chagrined. Their displeasure quickly escalated to indignation; they had been preparing to defend the Cup—the most cherished team trophy in the world of athletics and the first time a non-English team was defending the trophy—before the earth they stood on was cut out from under them. They had constructed an expensive new tennis stadium—Roland Garros—to show off their team, the pride of France. Now the biggest name in the game was precluded from playing; the financial loss would be tremendous. French players were equally peeved. Defeating the American team without Tilden was no victory at all; where was the honor?

Even some United States Lawn Tennis Association officials were caught off guard and embarrassed by the decision. The sanction and how it was secretly orchestrated offended their sense of fair play and due process. “I hereby tender my resignation as Chairman of the Davis Cup Committee to take effect immediately,” said one disgruntled American official.4

Unwilling to take a financial bath, not to mention a loss of prestige by hosting a topflight international encounter without the game’s greatest player, the French initiated a last-gasp diplomatic offensive. They began to lobby the American ambassador to France for relief. If necessary, they would even go to the White House.

It was all too much for most observers to make sense of. One of the decade’s greatest athletes being penalized for writing newspaper articles, tennis players going on strike, high-ranking officials abruptly quitting, diplomatic channels being pursued, and confusion and turmoil seemingly everywhere—one would be hard-pressed to come across another instance of an athlete precipitating such controversy and all-out mayhem. But William T. Tilden 2nd was no run-of-the-mill sportsman. “The Everest of the lawn tennis Himalayas,” he was a once-in-a-century athletic wonder who captivated the sports world as assuredly as he dictated his dominance to those who had the audacity to step across the net from him.5

Once the broad-shouldered and reed-thin Philadelphian walked on a tennis court and took hold of his weapon of choice, it was as if Merlin’s magic wand had been transformed into a racket containing a devilish array of drives, spins, lobs, chops, and drop shots in its arsenal. No one prior to Tilden had ever attempted, much less mastered, such an imposing array of shots. Such athletic excellence and technical superiority were thought by some to be divined by the gods or at the very least fashioned in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. But the truth was far more mundane and conventional. As with other great champions, it starts with a child mesmerized by a particular athletic item emblematic of the game. It was no different for young Tilden.

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Notes:
  1. Stephen Wallis Merrihew, “Intimate Talk with My Readers,” American Lawn Tennis (August 20, 1928): 355.
  2. Laney, Covering the Court, 72–73.
  3. Hart, Lawn Tennis Masters Unveiled, 20.
  4. “Tilden Barred from Davis Cup Play,” American Lawn Tennis (July 5, 1928): 251.
  5. Hart, Lawn Tennis Masters Unveiled, 12.

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