Northeast resident Allen Hornblum has released his sixth book, ‘American Colossus,’ which examines the life of tennis legend Bill Tilden.
Allen Hornblum believes there are four athletes in history who can be considered truly great. His definition of “great” means standing head and shoulders above everyone else in the field, or doing something that cannot be duplicated. It’s a term he believes has been watered down in modern discussion.
The four are Babe Ruth from baseball, Jack Dempsey for boxing, Bobby Jones for golf and Bill Tilden for tennis.
But Hornblum is fixated on the latter, whom he believes not many people have even heard of. He so admires Tilden he recently published a 500-plus page sports biography on the man who he believes is the greatest athlete ever forgotten.
“Here’s a guy who was a titanic figure in his career and very few people, even many who play tennis, don’t know his true impact to the sport today,” the Northeast resident said.
American Colossus is Tilden’s recently published volume, and it lives up to its name both in size and scope. The weighty tome illustrates Tilden’s life and influence through 14 chapters, each scrupulously researched, documented and footnoted by Hornblum. It took the writer four years of doing little else other than research and playing tennis to put together.
Hornblum’s meticulous, workmanlike writing carries the reader through Tilden’s life, beginning with childhood and tennis career. Tilden was born in 1893 in Philadelphia and grew up right next to the Germantown Cricket Club, back when tennis was largely considered nothing more than a leisurely lawn sport.
“The game’s birth and emergence is in the playgrounds of the rich and famous,” he said.
Hornblum argues that not only was Tilden the very best player the sport has ever seen, but he helped transform the sport into the widely watched and respected athletic competition it is today.
Tilden rose to prominence in the 1920s, which many refer to as the golden era of sports when media began providing more coverage, and fans became more devoted. Master of every stroke a racket can perform, Tilden was the top player worldwide for six consecutive years. He was the first American to take home the Wimbledon trophy and to this day holds a record seven U.S. Championship titles.
“He was such a phenomenon because he was so victorious, tournament in, tournament out,” Hornblum said. “He became a sports icon. In addition to that, he was a revolutionary in the sense he wanted to move the games from clubs to playgrounds and high schools and playgrounds of America.”
He was, without question, Hornblum argues, to tennis what Babe Ruth was to baseball. Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn and Pola Negri were starstruck in his presence. But the athlete was not without fault. He was notorious for his flamboyance and temper on the court.
“If he disagreed with a call from a judge he would purposefully throw plays — sometimes even games and sets — to correct what he saw as a folly,” Hornblum said.
And he was not without scandal. After his career was over, he was involved in two cases of possible romantic relationships with underage boys. In one instance, he was found in a vehicle with a 14-year-old behind the wheel with his pants unbuttoned. Though it was not widely reported at the time, Hornblum believes the damage to his reputation was permanent. Hornblum’s recent endeavors to get a historical marker designating Tilden’s contributions to the sport at Germantown Cricket Club were denied due to Tilden’s criminal background.
Hornblum captures the athlete’s life with bountiful zeal. The tennis match descriptions, though describing games that happened nearly a century ago, move with the intensity of a ball slicing across the court. Simply put, Hornblum is one hell of a writer, giving his dense and scholarly writing a gloss that keeps pages moving. The sky outside would turn green if Hornblum sat down at his keyboard and typed it.
That’s no surprise — this is far from the author’s first work. His previously published works focusing largely on experiments conducted on prisoners — Acres of Skin, 1998, started when Hornblum discovered unlawful experiments happening at Holmesburg Prison. He followed up the book in 2013 with Against Their Will, which discusses the history of experimentation on children and infants.
A vigorous athlete himself, Hornblum never attempts to defend Tilden’s actions in his personal life, though he cherishes his athletic contributions.
“No athlete ever had the impact on his sport that Tilden did with tennis,” he said. “You mention the great athletes of the day, and they never had the impact Tilden did. He’s a revolutionary.”
With the book published, Hornblum has been spending his time on the courts himself at the Delaware Valley Tennis Club in Huntingdon Valley. Being the workman he is, he’s already thinking about his next project, which may jump genre and be a departure from what he normally writes. ••
American Colossus: Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis is published by University of Nebraska Press. It is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and digital book stores.