|William M. Johnston's name is inevitably associated with Bill Tilden's. Tilden was "Big Bill" (6-foot-2) and Johnston "Little Bill" (5-foot-81/2) and they were the twin terrors who turned back Australasians, French and Japanese in the Davis Cup challenge round from 1920 through 1926, a seven-year span of invincibility unequaled in those international team matches.
Big Bill and Little Bill were teammates and they were also rivals. It was Johnston's bad luck that his career was contemporaneous with the player many regard as the greatest ever. Otherwise Johnston might have won the U.S. Championships most of the years it fell to Tilden, from 1920 to 1925. As it was, Little Bill won it twice, in 1915 and in 1919, defeating Maurice McLoughlin the first time and Tilden in the 1919 final. Johnston was runner-up six times, and in five of those years it was Tilden who beat him in the final.
Until the French began to catch up to Big Bill and Little Bill in 1926, Johnston had been winning his Davis Cup matches with the loss of few sets. In seven challenge rounds, he won 11 of 14 matches in singles. He lost only once until 1927, when his age and his health began to tell. He ranked in the World Top Ten eight straight years from 1919 and in the U.S. Top Ten 12 times between 1913 and 1926, No. 1 in 1915 and in 1919.
The topspin forehand drive he hammered with the western grip was one of the most famous and effective shots in tennis history. No other player executed it as well as he did, taking the ball shoulder high and leaping off the ground on his follow-through. He was also one of the best volleyers the game has known, despite meeting the ball near the service line, where he stationed himself because of his shortness. He used the same face of the racket for backhand and forehand.
A right-hander, Johnston was born November 2, 1894, in San Francisco and developed many of his skills on public parks courts. His whole game was aggressive and he played to win on the merit of his strokes rather than on the opponent's errors. Though he did not have a big serve, overhead he was secure and angled his smash effectively. He had as much fight as anyone, who was ever champion and many times when he came off the court, dripping with perspiration after a prolonged struggle, he was five to eight pounds below his usual weight of 125.
Such was the case in his U.S. final with Tilden in 1922 at the Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia in which Johnston won the first two sets and led by 3-0 in the fourth. It seemed that every spectator in the stands was cheering for Johnston, the favorite of galleries virtually every time he went on the court. Both he and Tilden had two legs on the challenge trophy, and Little Bill had his heart set on retiring it for his permanent keeping in this match. It was a crushing disappointment when he lost in five sets.
Following the 1927 season, Johnston retired from competition. His health had not been robust from the time he served in the Navy in World War I. He died May 1, 1946, and 12 years later was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Little Bill had made a big name in tennis.|