Jack Kramer (R) & Bobby Riggs - 1947 Madison Square Garden, New York. (Ralph Morse/Getty)

The year was 1947 – the day after Christmas. The place, New York City. The occasion: the start of a new professional tennis tour, pitting veteran Bobby Riggs versus rookie pro Jack Kramer.

In 1946, just after World War II, Riggs had edged out Don Budge to become the world’s best pro. In 1947, Kramer dominated the amateur world, most notably winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. The stage was now set for Riggs and Kramer to travel the world and play 89 matches across North America. The matchup was appealing. Riggs’ style was a versatile mix of defense and offense, Kramer a practitioner of state-of-the-art serve-and-volley tennis.

There was no better place to kick off the Riggs-Kramer tour than New York City and the iconic venue, Madison Square Garden. Just over 16,000 tickets had been sold. Promoter Jack Harris anticipated a gate that would top the $50,000 mark – a rarity for tennis in those years.

Then came something no one could have anticipated: an epic snowstorm, on a scale New York City had not seen since 1888. More than 25 inches of snow covered the city. All transportation – subways, buses, taxis – was shut down. Snowplows meant little. As Harris looked out the window of his hotel, he said, “No one will go out to watch a tennis match in this weather.”

On foot, Kramer, Riggs and the opening competitors, Dinny Pails and Pancho Segura, made their way crosstown from the Hotel Lexington on the east side of New York to Madison Square Garden on the west side. As the players trudged through the snow, with Riggs carrying his usual load of seven to eight racquets, Kramer said, “It was like an expedition to the South Pole.”


Expecting to play in front of virtually no one, the players were amazed at what they saw upon arrival at Madison Square Garden. Amazingly, 15,114 spectators were on-hand, clad in everything from boots, galoshes, ski garb, earmuffs and more. Jimmy Powers, sports editor of the New York Daily News, called it, “the greatest tribute to an indoor athletic event in the history of sport.”

Riggs, the reigning champion, was keen to put the contender in his place. As Riggs would show a worldwide audience a quarter-century later when he beat Margaret Court in the first “Battle of Sexes,” he began sharply, quickly taking the first three games over a nervous Kramer to win the first set, 6-2. In the second, Riggs served at 4-all, 15-40, but escaped those two break points and went on to take the second, 10-8. Though Kramer won the third, Riggs closed it out in the fourth, 6-2, 10-8, 4-6, 6-4. Riggs’ strategy was brilliant. Rather than merely react to Kramer’s net-rushing game, Riggs constantly pressed Kramer.

But few people in tennis history ever out-thought Kramer. Within 10 matches, he’d thoroughly studied Riggs. Past the age of 80, sitting across from me in the living room of his home in Los Angeles, Kramer said, “By then I knew every shot Bobby was going to hit—a passing shot here, a lob there, his serves, his volleys. He was a very smart player, so he forced me to really think out there.” Early on, Kramer barely led, 16-15. But in time, he pulled away, winning 53 of the next 58 to dominate their tour, 69-20.

Kramer had also won $89,000 over the course of those 89 matches—the equivalent today of $1.1 million.