American Golden Set

Article excerpt

Tilden and Budge were masterful tennis players, but they were also gentlemen who elevated the game by their good grace.

BILL TILDEN did not just stroll into the West Side Tennis Club, he swept down the hallway that entered the main lounge and dining room like a large wave rolling toward the beach. Sometimes he wore a camel's hair topcoat, sometimes a bulky tennis sweater. Often one of his arms would be wrapped around half a dozen tennis rackets. Well over six feet tall, he had a long face, a wolfish grin, wide shoulders, narrow hips, and long, especially long legs. As he advanced down the corridor-"Hello, Freddie, sooo glad to see you," "There you are Emily, beautiful as ever"-his casual possession of the club not altogether welcome to many members, he strode past all those photographs of old champions-William Larned, Maurice McLaughlin, "Little Bill" Johnston, Helen Wills, Don Budge, Alice Marble-including his own photograph, with the dates of his seven national championships listed below it. He had won his first national championship here in 1920 when he was 27, then six more, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1929.

Those who had seen both Tilden and Don Budge at their best could not decide who was the greatest in the history of the game. Budge was the first to win the "Grand Slam," as it then became called, a term derived from bridge. He had won the championships in Australia, Paris, Wimbledon, and Forest Hills, all of them grass, except at Roland Garros, where the courts were crushed red brick. One day I happened to enter the pro shop, and whom did I see but Budge himself, with his racket in a vice on the workbench. He was putting strips of lead around the head of his racket, which was already a monstrous club with a grip of at least 5 inches. Budge had an arm about as big as my leg. "Why are you putting lead on you racket?" I asked. "It puts punch in my volley," he said. Punch in his volley. He must have dug divots in the grass courts outside. Budge had won one of the most famous matches in history, his Interzone Davis Cup match in 1937 at Wimbledon against the German champion Baron Gottfried von Cramm. Hitler arrived from Berlin just before the match. The baron went up 4-1 in the fifth set, both players at their peak, making twice as many winners as errors. Budge finally prevailed 8-6 in the final set, hitting a diving passing shot down the line against Cramm-and though lying stretched out on the court, unable to see if the shot had gone in, knew from the roar of the crowd that it had. Many people remained in the stands silent for an hour after the match, and Tilden himself said it had been the greatest match he ever saw.

Tilden often gave the junior players good advice, though one of my coaches said, "Stay away from that bastard." I had heard he was a homosexual, but I didn't know much about that. Oscar Wilde, I suppose. Maybe it was an English thing. Once I had a sore elbow, with a tournament coming up. "Play right through it," Tilden said. So I did. Early in his career he had lost the top joint of a finger on his playing hand, and it hurt every time he hit the ball. But, seven championships.

Tilden had lots of great stories. "Once, when I had to play Lacoste," he said, "the French froze the balls." "Froze the balls?" "Yes. Lacoste invented the ball machine, and when you were playing him it was like playing the machine. The French as hosts were in charge of everything. So they flooded the slow courts, and they kept the balls refrigerated under the stands. The balls were like ice cubes. I couldn't have hit an ace with a cannon. I played his own game. And won." The greatest player in the world, playing "The Crocodile" on a swampy court, with balls that wouldn't bounce! French sportsmanship. Tilden admired the four great French players for their brilliance, but had reservations about Frenchness itself, saying in his autobiography, My Story, that Jean Borotra "was what passes for 'typically' French. …