Tilden was born in Philadelpia, Pennsylvania into a wealthy fmily: to Selina Hey and William T. Tilden, Sr. Before his birth, his parents were beset by tragedy - diptheria brought about the deaths of three of his siblings in 1884, all in the span of three weeks. His parents had two more children: Tilden and his brother Herbert. As a result Bill Tilden lived a sheltered life as a child. He was tutored at home until junior high school.
When Tilden was 18, his mother died; even though his father was still alive and maintained a large house staffed with servants, he was sent a few houses away to live with a maiden aunt. Three years later, his father died from a kidney infection; a few months later, his beloved brother Herbert died of pneumonia. At age 22, Tilden had experienced losing his entire family to tragic and untimely deaths.
He is regarded by many as the greatest player of all time. Tilden developed late, not winning his first major title (Wimbledon) until 1920, at the age of 27. He was the first American to win there, and during the 1920s he remained undefeated in any major match for seven years. He also represented the U.S. on the Davis Cup team every season from 1920 through 1930. His nickname was "Big Bill".
Tilden's fame led him to have many famous friends, particularly movie stars. He moved to Hollywood and coached many of them in tennis, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Tallulah Bankhead. He also became good friends with Charlie Chaplin. Tilden played at Chaplin's tennis parties, where he coached Errol Flynn, Joseph Cotten, Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy, and Olivia deHavilland.
Tilden was a closeted homosexual, but in later years his sexual orientation was given much attention after two publicized arrests for indiscretion with a minor. When his homosexuality became known, he was ostracised from the tennis world and was banned from the most prestigious tennis courts; his earnings were dramatically cut.
In 1946, he was arrested for fondling a teenage hustler on Sunset Boulevard and convicted of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor", although it was clear that the young man with whom he was caught having sex had no objection to the sexual relations. He was sentenced to a year in prison, but released on probation after serving slightly more than seven months.
Less than two years later, he was arrested again for making advances to a 16-year-old hitchhiker. He was sentenced to a year term, and served ten months.
In 1949, despite these troubles, he was voted the most outstanding athlete of the first half of the twentieth century by the National Sports Writers Association, with ten times the number of votes of the nearest runner-up.
After his second incarceration, Tilden was increasingly shunned by the tennis world. When this became public knowledge, he was no longer allowed to enter tennis clubs or to play on the professional circuit. By the end of his life, his former friends had abandoned him. Some of them literally turned their backs when he approached.
The officials at the University of Pennsylvania removed his name from their alumni files. The Germantown Cricket Club, where he had won many of his Davis Cup matches, removed his pictures from their walls. The same happened at Forest Hills.
He died of a heart attack in a Los Angeles rented room, impoverished (he had been reduced to pawning his trophies) and in relative obscurity. He was alone, and his rackets were found beside his bed, packed and ready to go to the 1953 U.S. Championships.