Disgraced 1920s Star Back in Lights

— In the 1920s, Bill Tilden dashed onto the world's tennis courts and transformed the game with his astonishing physical skills and his generous spirit of sportsmanship.

Stretching from Wimbledon to Broadway to Hollywood, his career expanded from athlete to writer to actor.

Then, he fell from grace and went to prison for sexual encounters with boys and young men. He died in 1953, virtually penniless and alone.

Now, Tilden's story has begun to emerge from the shadows.

In New York, Big Bill, a 90-minute play on Tilden's rise and fall, has opened off-Broadway at Lincoln Center's Newhouse Theater.

In California, a screenwriter has circulated a movie script based on a Tilden biography written a quarter-century ago by journalist Frank Deford.

The off-Broadway stage production attracted the attention of ESPN, which produced a story about Tilden for its sports network.

‘Tilden, Then Everyone Else’

As an athlete, Tilden excelled on a high level. His mastery of strokes and innovations, especially in the use of spin, made him an overwhelming presence in the sport of tennis. His insistence on fairness earned him added stature.

Tilden won seven U.S. championships and three Wimbledon singles titles and secured Davis Cup dominance for the United States. By one account, he won more than 900 matches and lost fewer than 70 over an 18-year period.

Ben Press, a San Diego tennis pro who presided at the Hotel del Coronado for 28 years, said Tilden's prowess stretched far beyond his prime. He played exhibitions against competitors half his age and won over audiences with his skill and demeanor.

"When we older folk talk about past greats," Press wrote recently, "almost everyone agrees: There was Tilden, then everyone else."

‘Uneasy Composite’

The stage play, by A.R. Gurney, portrays Tilden as "an uneasy composite" of characters from the roaring twenties, according to Ben Brantley, who reviewed Big Bill for The New York Times.

"His swagger," wrote Brantley, "is always being undermined by the lust that brims from his eyes whenever an attractive ball boy appears."

Worse still, in Brantley's eyes, is that actor John Michael Higgins's Tilden, "seldom conveys the commanding spirit and drive of a champion who mesmerized fans."

Yet another critic, Jeremy McCarter, writing in The New York Sun, found Higgins' portrayal "particularly fine. He conveys the egotism of the artist, the naiveté of the overgrown child, and the turmoil of a man who can't excuse his reprehensible behavior."

If his screenplay makes it into production, writer Tom Penner says his script won't be a "tennis movie … as much as … a story of a lonely old lion in his autumn years."

Penner, of Long Beach, Calif., is a teaching tennis pro who doubles as a screenwriter. He said his research drew him to Tilden's story:

"The more I learned about this enigmatic superstar — his sad, crippling youth, the demons which haunted him his entire life … and that he considered himself first and foremost a mentor — I knew it was something I had to write," Penner said.

Neither Saint Nor Devil

And what of Tilden's sexual behavior?

"I think these things should be talked about," said an elderly matron as she emerged from the Newhouse Theater one afternoon last weekend.

"Have you ever loved anyone, Mr. Tilden?" asks the judge who sends him to prison.

"In a more accepting society," says one of the characters in Big Bill, "he might have found someone to love."

Tilden "was no saint, but neither was he the devil," says screenwriter Penner. "Somewhere between these extremes we find a simple human being who is in need of love, understanding, and friendship.

"Tragically," Penner wrote in a recent essay, "in the autumn of Big Bill's years, these qualities were in short supply."