By Randy Walker
Madison Square Garden has the moniker as the world’s most famous arena and has been the home of some of the biggest ever sporting events. The NBA Finals, NHL Stanley Cup Championships, world-famous boxing matches have been contested at the Midtown Manhattan arena.
Some of the greatest matches in tennis have also been staged at “The Garden” most recently the “Masters” championship, the year-end men’s tournament, now known as the ATP World Tour Finals played in London, as well as the year-end Virginia Slims Championships, now known as the year-end WTA Tour Championships held in Singapore. Now, MSG is the home of the annual BNP Paribas Showdown, an event that started in 2008 featuring Roger Federer against Pete Sampras.
This year, the event on Monday, March 6 has four matches (first to five, no-ad scoring) featuring Andy Roddick vs. Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Martin del Potro vs. Kei Nishikori, Jack Sock vs. Nick Kyrgios and Venus Williams vs. Garbine Muguruza.
An annual event is a celebration of tennis where are the biggest stars in the game to compete in front of the world’s best sports fans in New York City, giving them a “tennis fix” six months from and until the U.S. Open.
While not an official event, it goes along with Madison Square Garden’s rich tradition of high profile “exhibition” tennis matches that date back to 1926.
The following are is a list from my compilation “On This Day In Tennis History” (available as a book, ebook, audio book and mobile app where books are sold and at www.TennisHistoryApp.com) where I describe some of the great exhibition matches that have been held at Madison Square Garden through the years. Many times when I tweet these anniversaries from the @ThisDayInTennis and my @TennisPublisher Twitter profiles, Jerry Solomon, the promoter of the BNP Paribas Challenge, will retweet these historic anecdote to bring the historic past together with the history being made in the present.
October 9, 1926: French tennis sensation Suzanne Lenglen makes her pro debut in front of 13,000 fans at Madison Square Garden in New York. Lenglen, a winner of six Wimbledon singles titles, debuts against Mary Browne, who she dominates during the tour, winning all 38 matches.
February 18, 1931: Bill Tilden makes his much hyped and anticipated professional debut defeating Czech Karel Kozeluh 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in front of 13,000 fans at Madison Square Garden in New York. Tilden and Kozeluh continue on to compete in 32 other matches in a cross-country tour – Tilden winning the tour 27-6. Tilden serves with entrepreneur William O’Brien as the co-promoter of the tour that grosses $238,000.
January 10, 1934: With fans literally standing in the aisles, a crowd of 14,637 – the largest crowd to ever assemble to watch a tennis match at the time – packs New York’s Madison Square Garden as Ellsworth Vines makes his professional debut against Bill Tilden. The 41-year-old Tilden emerges victorious in the debut match of a 73-match barnstorming tour, beating the 23-year-old Vines 8-6, 6-3, 6-2. The match grosses $30,125 with courtside tickets being sold for $5. Vines wins the overall tour 47 matches to 26 with the overall tour grossing $243,000 – the most ever for a pro tour.
January 3, 1939: New York’s Madison Square Garden is the scene of the professional debut of Don Budge. Fresh off winning the first “Grand Slam” of tennis in 1938, Budge defeats Ellsworth Vines 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in 1 hour, 2 minutes.
December 26, 1947: Jack Kramer makes his pro debut at Madison Square Garden against Bobby Riggs as a blizzard hits New York. With taxis, buses and commuter trains and private cars stalled and subways limping, 15,114 fans came to the arena on Eighth Avenue and 50th street. Riggs spoils the debut of Kramer, winning 6-2, 10-8, 4-6, 6-4. Writes Lincoln Werden of the New York Times, “The former amateur king pin piled up error after error throughout and indications that he lacked complete poise and control brought an occasional reassuring cry from the fans ‘Come On Jackie.’”
March 10, 2008: A sell-out crowd of 19,690 that includes golf legend Tiger Woods pack Madison Square Garden in New York City for the NetJets Showdown exhibition match between Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. Federer, an owner of 12 major singles titles, edges 14-time major singles titlist Sampras in a third-set tie-breaker 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6) in the sometimes competitive celebration of tennis. Says Sampras, “It was a great night for tennis.” Writes the Associated Press of the match, “There were moments when, if you squinted a bit, you would have sworn that was the Sampras of old, rather than an old Sampras. There were moments when, if you listened to the whip of the racket through the air, you would have been absolutely sure Federer was giving it his all. And then there were moments when, as you watched Sampras throw his racket to the ground in mock disgust or saw Federer raise an index finger to celebrate four aces in a single game, it didn’t really matter whether this match counted or not.” Says Federer after the match, “I don’t think winning or losing was really the issue tonight. I think we both tried to do our best and have a fun night, and that’s what it turned out to be.”