Bill Tilden and Dante

Revered on the tennis court like no one else. Reviled like the Sodomites in Dante’s Inferno. The first male superstar of tennis. (Gay, too, but no one would dare say it. The crowds were too great.) Ranked #1 for six straight years: 1920-1925. Bill Tilden’s got game, style, charisma. Got strategy, too, a thinking man’s player. Wrote Match Play and the Spin of the Ball: required reading for half a century. Invented, singlehandedly, the modern game. Forget gentility and grace. Tennis was athleticism, power, strategy. Tennis was showmanship, too. Tilden would sometimes hold five balls in his hand before smacking four aces to win the game, then toss the fifth ball to the crowd. Long after Tilden’s unbearably lonely death in 1953, California’s sodomy laws repealed. The year is 1976, Borg’s first triumph at Wimbledon. More than forty years later in 2018, I am teaching Dante in Oklahoma. The vote in the classroom is 15-6 in favor of declaring that Sodomy is not immoral, not a sin. In Dante’s medieval-turning-renaissance Florence, thousands were arrested for Sodomy. When Dante encounters his teacher, Brunetto Latini, among the Sodomites in Dante’s Hell, he praises him from beyond the grave: “You taught me how man makes himself eternal.” When we encounter the idea/fact/myth of Big Bill Tilden, we might start with a simple acknowledgement of truth: “As the greatest tennis player of the first half of the twentieth century, Bill Tilden taught us what tennis could be.”

Missing Information: Bill Tilden was arrested twice, in 1946 and 1948, for incidents involving driving and sexual misconduct with boys aged 14 and 16 years old, for which he served two short terms in jail.

Artist Bio: Leonardo Luque, a retired Colombian naval officer, earned his fine arts degree in 2012 from Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogota, Colombia. A highly ranked Colombian player in the ITF world rankings for men’s 60 singles, Leo has drawn all his life and is especially interested in the beauty and motion of the human body. After traveling through China and Panama, he settled down with his family in 2014 in Boca Raton, Florida.

Happy to announce that this blog has been named one of Feedspot’s top tennis blogs, websites & influencers of 2023.

4 replies on “Bill Tilden and Dante”

One of the rew examples of great tennis players who had pitiable personal lives. Most are disciplined & honorable that understand how lucky we are to play such a fantastic game and reap all the positive benefits of that competition.

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