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14-May-2006
Book Review of “Match Play and the Spin of the Ball” by Bill Tilden, from Charles Pennington

I discovered Bill Tilden’s 1925 book “Match Play and the Spin of the Ball” while browsing Tennisplayer, which had a nice excerpt from it, with accompanying video footage of Tilden and other legends at play. There are many used copies of it on Amazon, my copy was a 1969 reprint.

Tilden in 1925 was at the top of the tennis world. Wikipedia says that he won the U.S. Championship (precursor of the U.S. Open) in 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1929, and was a finalist in 1918, 1919, and 1927. “During his lifetime.., he was a flamboyant character who was never out of the public eye, acting in both movies and plays as well as playing tennis.” Elsewhere I’ve read that his fame at the time was about equal to that of Babe Ruth.

Tilden’s writing itself is fresh and interesting. There’s a jaunty tone, just a touch pedantic, a little bit Gatsby, a little bit Dale Carnegie, a little bit Phil McDonnell:

Most tennis players look upon that ball as merely something to hit…Let me suggest the ball for a moment as an individual. It is the third party in the match. Will this third party be on your side or against you? It is up to you.

He gives unhedged opinions--

I have heard people with real intelligence, who should have known better, attempt to prove that the best women’s tennis equals the top flight of men’s. Nothing can be more ridiculous.

--and he is on occasion wrong, here on the same topic:

It is my belief, and has been my experience, that the woman does not live who can go the net with success through three sets and stand up under it

Someone should tell Martina Navratilova!

This is a how-to book on how to play better tennis. Tilden's view, from the top of the game, was that tennis in 1925 had been preceded by first an era of mostly defensive baseline play, then an era of more reckless attack, culminating in the synthesis, in 1925, of a game having strong elements of both attack and defense, targeted specifically at the weaknesses of the opponent. This all described his own game, of course:

Let me open this discussion by a sound tennis maxim: ‘Never give your opponent a chance to make a shot he likes.’…I may sound unsporting when I claim that the primary object of tennis is to break up your opponent’s game, but it is my honest belief that no man is defeated until his game is crushed, or at least weakened. Nothing so upsets a man’s mental and physical poise as to be continually led to error.

He presents strategies for playing two stock characters in the tennis world, the pusher, “Old Joe Gettem,” and the slugger, “Pete Swattem”.

..in playing Old Joe you must be patient, steady until an opening comes, and then severe… What is an opening against his defense? Old Joe will give you several…There are the openings of driving Joe way out of the court, to one side, and hitting hard to the other, and the shot which pulls him to the net so you can pass him, for Old Joe Gettem is seldom a good volleyer.
..in playing young Pete you should rely largely on defense, allowing him to pile up the errors off the backstop or in the net…Young Pete Swattem thrives not upon returning the ball. He seems to join Lady Macbethin her famous soliloquy, ‘Out, damned Spot! Out I say!

Tilden laments that there exist good players, neither Old Joe or Young Pete, and there the situation is more difficult. His advice, admittedly difficult to follow, is to hit “sufficiently aggressive to force your opponent into defense, provided first you are certain to put the ball in play”. Tilden emphasizes though that errors, even at the high levels, often determine the match, and he stresses, “Put the ball in play!”.

Not surprisingly, Tilden advocates practice, practice, and more practice. He describes how his continuous work on mastering every shot. He spent a full winter in Providence on an indoor court, trying to develop a strong backhand, and he credits this work for moving him from the top ten to number one.

The book has some very nice illustrations showing the major grips and strokes of the day, and they confirm that “There is nothing new under the sun”. There were players who tried just about everything. There were flat, spin, slice, and American Twist serves, topspin forehand and backhand drives, slices, volleys, overheads. The western grip, which has become the most common over the past decade or two, was in use back in 1925. Tilden himself hit with an eastern grip, but his main rival, “Little Bill” Johnston, hit with the western. Furthermore, Johnston also used the same grip on his backhand--he hit his backhand on the same racquet face as he hit his forehand, without shifting his grip at all. This is exactly what I do, and I thought I was in uncharted territory.

Some probably think Tilden was equal or better to today’s pro’s. I doubt it. Tennisplayer has video footage of Tilden’s strokes, and they’re just not as advanced as today’s. For example, on his backhand drive, his left arm hangs limply by his side. In what other athletic motion would you not move the left arm? Pitchers, skaters, javelin throwers, bowlers…they all use their left arms as counterweights to what’s happening on the right. Furthermore, why should we expect, a priori, that tennis players haven’t improved over the past few generations when we know that athletes in more quantifiable sports, e.g. runners, sprinters, weightlifters, swimmers, etc., have all continually advanced their world records.

Tilden had some well-known fatal flaws that got the best of him, and one reads uneasily the chapter titled “Youth to the Fore” about the upcoming junior stars of the day. Ultimately his is a sad story. Nevertheless this book captures his deep thinking about tennis, written in plain, entertaining prose, when he could and did speak confidently from the top of the game.