Tennis Star Bill Tilden Is Arrested for Lewd Behavior with a Minor

One of the greatest tennis players of all time, Tilden was arrested and charged with lewd behavior with a teenage male prostitute. After Tilden was convicted and sentenced to one year in jail, his reputation was ruined. The tennis community and the public dismissed him as a sexual deviant, which overshadowed his many professional achievements during the 1920’s. He also had other contacts with police for sex-related incidents.

Summary of Event

Bill Tilden was a star of the international tennis scene during the 1920’s. One of the best known American tennis players of the era, he helped transform tennis from a competition usually reserved for the wealthy elite to a popular spectator sport. [kw]Tennis Star Bill Tilden Is Arrested for Lewd Behavior with a Minor (Nov. 23, 1946)
[kw]Tilden Is Arrested for Lewd Behavior with a Minor, Tennis Star Bill (Nov. 23, 1946)
Tilden, Bill
Tilden, Bill
[g]United States;Nov. 23, 1946: Tennis Star Bill Tilden Is Arrested for Lewd Behavior with a Minor[00790]
[c]Prostitution;Nov. 23, 1946: Tennis Star Bill Tilden Is Arrested for Lewd Behavior with a Minor[00790]
[c]Sex crimes;Nov. 23, 1946: Tennis Star Bill Tilden Is Arrested for Lewd Behavior with a Minor[00790]
[c]Law and the courts;Nov. 23, 1946: Tennis Star Bill Tilden Is Arrested for Lewd Behavior with a Minor[00790]
[c]Public morals;Nov. 23, 1946: Tennis Star Bill Tilden Is Arrested for Lewd Behavior with a Minor[00790]
[c]Sports;Nov. 23, 1946: Tennis Star Bill Tilden Is Arrested for Lewd Behavior with a Minor[00790]

Tilden’s arrest on November 23, 1946, in Los Angeles occurred after police spotted him in a car being driven by a teenager. Police stopped the car and found Tilden in the front seat with a boy Tilden solicited for sex. Both were in various stages of undress. Tilden was arrested and charged with lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor, a felony charge usually associated with sexual abuse, but the charge was reduced to contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor. Tilden offered no defense during his arrest and booking and signed a statement about the incident without protest. It was only later that the tennis star would hire a lawyer to defend him as he sought to escape certain conviction.

Bill Tilden.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Tilden showed no apparent concern about the charges. He had been detained by police in two earlier incidents, one in which he had propositioned a boy and another in which he had physical contact with a boy. Tilden managed to escape punishment or public exposure for these two incidents, but with his 1946 arrest came public scandal and the beginning of the end to his career as a tennis star.

At a court hearing on January 16, 1947, Tilden pleaded guilty, expecting to receive a light punishment. Most of the hearing was consumed by psychologists who labeled him mentally ill and in need of counseling. With this testimony on his side, it appeared Tilden would escape jail, or prison, but the judge was not swayed by the psychologists or by Tilden’s character witnesses. Tilden’s odd behavior during the hearing, which included denying previous sexual misconduct, may have influenced the judge’s decision to give him one year in the county jail and further restrictions after he served his sentence. Tilden spent much of his sentence at a California work farm, serving only eight months.

Some twenty years before his arrest and public disgrace, Tilden was one of the world’s best tennis players. He was most proficient during the 1920’s, winning seven U.S. singles titles in the tournament that would later be known as the U.S. Open and five doubles and four mixed-doubles championships in the same tournament. Tilden also was a Wimbledon champion, winning three singles titles and a doubles title, and he won a mixed-singles title in what would become the French Open. Furthermore, he played in eleven consecutive Davis Cup tournaments from 1920 to 1930 and helped the United States win seven straight of the international titles, a feat never repeated by any other country. With ten singles and eleven doubles titles, Tilden remains ranked among the greatest tennis stars of any era, matching the feats of some of the game’s modern stars.

With his achievements, Tilden’s fame grew, as did the swings in his mercurial personality. Prone to tantrums and disagreements, he was in constant conflict with tennis officials, including line judges and referees, and other players. His antics on the court, which included threats to leave during the middle of a match, resembled those of later tennis star John McEnroe. Tilden’s favorite strategy was to scowl at any line judge or referee he believed missed a call. His staring became so intimidating that the U.S. tennis organization considered a rule against glaring, which, while it would be difficult to enforce, was implicitly directed at Tilden. The rule did not pass, and Tilden continued his tirades and glares at officials. He also earned the reputation for throwing (losing) sets out of personal pique or as part of an elaborate plan to taunt his opponent, exhibiting how he could turn on and off his talent and win even though behind in a match.

Tilden’s showmanship aided him in adding to his income, a necessity for tennis players prior to World War II. During that period the tennis profession was much different from what it became in the modern era. Tilden and his competitors were considered amateurs, forced to make money in professions outside tennis while competing in tournaments. Tilden made money by acting in plays, earning mainly scathing reviews of his efforts, and writing articles about tennis matches. He also composed an autobiography, dropping names of politicians, Hollywood actors, and other tennis players in an effort to heighten his own fame.

With his arrest and release, Tilden’s tennis career was over. Well over fifty years old, he could no longer play competitively, and because of his arrest he could not draw a paying crowd to see his tennis exhibitions, which provided much of his income during the 1940’s. Teaching tennis also was a foreclosed possibility, as one of the conditions of his release was having no contact with minors, even those whom he might instruct in tennis.

In January, 1949, Tilden again was arrested. He had picked up a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker and attempted to molest him. He received a less severe sentence, one more year at the work farm for a probation violation rather than a new sentence for the second crime. He served only four months of this sentence and was released at the end of 1949.

Tilden’s final years were spent in shame, as friends, players, and fans rejected him. Attempting a career comeback at the age of sixty, Tilden’s body apparently was unable to handle the stress of training. He died in 1953 after having a heart attack in a hotel room in Cleveland, where he was set to play in the U.S. Pro Championship.


Tilden’s arrest and conviction in 1946 ended one of the greatest athletic careers of all time, in any sport. With his wins in the U.S. and French championships and at Wimbledon, Tilden was the first to accomplish the rare career grand slam. However, his personal failings and uncontrolled attraction to teenage boys destroyed his career and reputation, but not before he was voted the greatest athlete of the first half of the twentieth century, beating even baseball icon Babe Ruth. He also was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959. While Tilden’s accomplishments are occasionally mentioned in the modern tennis world, he remains an outcast, whose stellar career was overshadowed by his criminal acts. Tilden, Bill

Further Reading

  • Deford, Frank. Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy. Wilmington, Del.: Sport Classic Books, 2004. A full-length biography of Tilden. Examines his tennis career, including the tournaments he won, his opponents, his disputes with the tennis establishment, and his arrest and humiliation at the end of his life.
  • Fein, Paul. Tennis Confidential. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2003. A wide-ranging book that looks at current and past tennis greats. Includes several stories about Bill Tilden, his career, and his life.
  • _______. You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005. A collection of stories about the many characters in professional tennis. Includes stories and quotations from the players. Tilden is featured prominently. Relates his many disputes with his colleagues and his attempts to intimidate them.
  • Philips, Caryl. The Right Set. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. A historical analysis of tennis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with chapters written by tennis pros and experts. Discusses how tennis became a widely viewed sport. Includes two chapters on Tilden.
  • Warren, Patricia Nell. The Lavender Locker Room: Three Thousand Years of Great Athletes Whose Sexual Orientation Was Different. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Wildcat Press, 2006. Warren, author of a classic novel in gay literature, provides a comprehensive work on lesbian, gay, and bisexual athletes over the centuries. Includes a chapter on Tilden.

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