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Original Issue

Tennis in a Blizzard

When Jack Kramer made his pro debut 14 years ago, New York's worst storm threatened to keep everyone away

From a window of the New York City Weather Bureau, Chief Meteorologist Benjamin Parry looked out at the storm that was burying Battery Park bench-deep in snow. "I never saw so much snow," Parry said. "It's coming straight down. All snow and no wind." It was early afternoon on Dec. 26, 1947. Fifteen inches of snow had fallen since 5:25 a.m. Across town, in his room at the Lexington Hotel, professional Tennis Promoter Jack Harris also looked out the window.

"The biggest tennis match in history," Harris said, "and nobody'll be able to get there to see it."

Six crosstown blocks away, the Madison Square Garden marquee read: PRO TENNIS TONIGHT, RIGGS VS. KRAMER. But the snow was strangling transportation. Streets were clogged with abandoned cars and buses. Suburban railroads were snowbound. Subways were running, but everybody, it seemed, was going home to get out of the storm that was expected to continue until midnight.

In their rooms at the Lexington, Bobby Riggs and Jack Kramer tried to relax. Riggs played solitaire; Kramer read the daily newspapers. The opener of their tour was being ballyhooed as "the tennis match of the decade."

Tiny, fast-talking Riggs was the pro champion. He had dethroned Don Budge the year before. Now his reign was challenged by the long-legged Kramer, making his pro debut after sweeping Wimbledon and Forest Hills and successfully defending the Davis Cup. "I figure to break Jack's serve at least once each set and capitalize on the breaks," Riggs had said. Kramer was equally confident. "I'll be surprised if I lose," he had said. "I've got the harder game and better serve. If Riggs can handle my speed and still attack, he might beat me, but I don't think he can do it."

It was a perfect sports attraction, but snowbanks surrounded the box office. It was too late to postpone the match, however, and as the snow drifted in the late-afternoon wind, Garden officials were wondering how to placate people who had purchased tickets but now were stranded far from the Garden.

Riggs and Kramer were nearly stranded, too. Carrying canvas-covered rackets and satchels containing sneakers and tennis clothes, they left the hotel around 7 p.m. The streets were empty. They waded through the snow along 49th Street until they reached the Garden.

As Riggs and Kramer disappeared into their dressing rooms, Pancho Segura and Dinny Pails were starting the preliminary match on the tautly stretched green canvas. Outside, a few parka-clad customers began to arrive. Most of them tunneled up out of the subway, but only one line, the Independent, had a stop at the Garden. Those who took the IRT or BMT had to tramp through the snow. People coming from midtown plowed for blocks to get there. On Eighth Avenue a few clomped along on skis and snow-shoes and stacked them in the Garden lobby. At the box office windows, some business-dressed suburbanites, trapped in the city, had a problem: their tickets were home.

"Call home and get the seat locations," the ticket men told them. "We've got orders to let you in, but mail us the unused tickets."

Suddenly, at 9:10 p.m., the snowfall stopped. In all, 25.8 inches had fallen, nearly five more than during the historic blizzard of 1888. Elsewhere, New York City was deserted. In nearby Times Square, policemen huddled in doorways with nobody else in sight for blocks. Theaters and restaurants were half empty. But at Madison Square Garden tennis fans stomped the snow off their galoshes and hurried to their seats.

When Riggs and Kramer were introduced, the houselights went out. From a perch in the ceiling, a spotlight picked up Kramer and then Riggs as they emerged from the Garden dressing rooms. When the houselights went on, both Riggs and Kramer looked around in disbelief at the cheering crowd of 15,114. Including advance-ticket buyers who couldn't get through the snow, the total number of tickets sold was 16,052 for a record pro tennis gate of $55,730.50. "All I could think of," Kramer said later, "was how did they get here."

Riggs won, 6-2, 10-8, 4-6, 6-4, but as Gene Ward of the New York Daily News wrote that night, "the astounding fact [was] that 15,114 hot-house children of this big town of ours mushed through the snow-drifts in New York's greatest blizzard [despite] the uncertainty of ever regaining their own hearthsides before dawn. [It was] one of the few occasions in history when the intestinal fortitude of the customers out-glittered the actions of the athletes."