Born on February 10, 1883, American William Tilden II or "Big Bill" Tilden, as he was more popularly known, was the first great tennis superstar. He was the number one player in the world for seven years and reigned the courts until the age of 38.
Tilden was the most dominant tennis player in the world in the 1920s and 1930s and is now considered by many as the single most influential person in the history of the sport. His raw physical power and unbelievable skill and quickness on the tennis court did much to change the image of tennis from that of a "sissy" country-club sport played by rich white people in long white pants to that of a major sport played by world-class athletes.
In 1920s America, sports was a huge thing for the public and Tilden was one of five sports figures who loomed as larger-than-life superstars at the time. The others were baseball's Babe Ruth, football's Red Grange, golf's Bobby Jones and boxing's Jack Dempsey
From 1920 to 1955, except for an extended period in the 1950s, Tilden thoroughly dominated tennis in a manner that left little doubt that he was the greatest player that ever lived. There has never been a single player who dominated an entire era of tennis as Tilden had during his prime. For seven straight years in the 1920s, he never lost a single important match, especially when the Davis Cup was at stake. He claimed the United States amateur championship six times in succession and seven times overall. He also led the United States to seven consecutive Davis Cup victories from 1920 to 1926, a record that is still unmatched today.
A stunning revelation surfaced later on that added even more mystique to the Tilden legend. It was revealed that during the mid-1920s, Tilden's middle finger on his playing hand had become infected and was subsequently amputated. But he still kept on playing and still kept on winning after that.
Today, Tilden is not that widely remembered despite his almost iconic renown. But in his prime, he was a flamboyant character who was always in the public eye, even acting in some movies and stage plays. In 1950, an Associated Press poll named Bill Tilden as the greatest tennis player of the half-century by a wide margin.