In a day where many believe that all who work in sports, no matter their position among the ranks of highly public figures in athletics should come out publicly with their sexuality in the interest of finally drawing “the big one” out of the closet, that one celebrity that would come out and change the world for all gay athletes, making sports more inclusive the world over.
What if someone told you that day had come and gone over a hundred years ago and no one was richer for it? The man I’m talking about holds some of the most important tennis records in the sport’s history over recognizable athletes like Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Records like holding the top spot in international tennis for an astounding seven years while his match-winning percentage lies at 93.6%, still the world’s best. In addition to these lauded decorations he is still the only player to ever reach 10 Major finals at a single Grand Slam event.
The man I’m talking about is named William Tatem Tilden II, a tennis great who remains shrouded in mystery and sexual intrigue.
Fathered by a wool merchant and local politician, ‘Bill’ Tilden grew up a wealthy life with many servants, but he would lose both parents (along with his older brother) by the age of 22. Because of a deep depression following both of these events Tilden’s aunt encouraged him to pick up tennis again (he had not played since he was five) and try to find happiness in athleticism. This is what Tilden did, and happiness he found.
Not good enough to make his college tennis team, Tilden would practice with a backboard and studied the game constantly. After a couple mixed doubles championships, Tilden would mold his backhand and form himself in to the world’s No. 1.
After Tilden’s professional career ended he would be arrested on two separate occasions in the late-40’s for sexual misconduct involving a fourteen and sixteen-year old boy. A lifelong friend of Tilden’s, Jack Kramer, would later state that rumors of Tilden’s sexuality often floated around and he made little effort to hide his often-flamboyant ways. This has led many to speculate that Tilden was a victim, a point to be made by the government of California (where he was arrested, and who did not repeal its sodomy law until the late 1970’s) that gay members of the community were less than full citizens.
Visit Wikipedia to learn more about Bill Tilden’s life, and be the judge yourself.