Why tennis made MSG a sports mecca

The Billie Jean King Cup is being played again Monday in Madison Square Garden in New York City, and in a few weeks' time, Atlantic City will host an exhibition featuring Andy Roddick, James Blake, Pete Sampras and others.

This minor renaissance of big-time winter tennis in New York is a welcome development, and it may even play a small role in ramping up American interest in tennis. Personally, I never quite understood the mythology of Madison Square Garden, even though I'm a New Yorker myself. Why is the Garden is considered such a historic and special place? Because New Yorkers say it is! Big deal. New Yorkers say that about everything having to do with their city, which is how you end up gifting the world with guys like Donald Trump.

When I look at the records of New York teams that call Madison Square Garden home (most prominently, the NBA's New York Knicks and the NHL's Rangers), I'm not exactly bowled over -- not to the extent that I am by the record of the Celtics in Boston Garden, or the Montreal Canadiens in the Forum. It's not like the familiar cry "[Ron] Greschner, you're a bum!" represents the epitome of the sports-watching or -playing experience.

Oddly, the case for the Garden as a sports mecca is made best by two sports that are lot more similar than at first glance they appear: boxing and tennis. We know about all those great heavyweight championships fights in the Garden, and tennis produced a lion's share of comparable confrontations over the years. The (now extinct) Grand Prix Masters and Virginia Slims Finals, both staples of the Garden for a long time, contributed much to the history of tennis -- and the Garden.

But not even the best official ATP or WTA matches can hold a candle to some of the tennis exhibitions that took place in the Garden. That owes partly to the fact that, before 1968, exhibitions were often the only kinds of matches the world's best players -- the pros -- could play. And nobody questioned the quality or validity of those mighty clashes the way they look askance at exos now.

As I sit in the snowstorm here in Gotham, I think of the year 1947. That December, more than 15,000 New Yorkers braved a severe snowstorm that shut down the rest of the city to gather at Madison Square Garden to see Jack Kramer's debut match as a pro. (He lost to Bobby Riggs -- there's your Billie Jean King connection, right?)

Before that, more than 17,000 fans turned out to watch Don Budge play his own first match as a pro, against Ellsworth Vines (whom Budge beat) at the Garden in 1939. And who can forget the epic in 1970, that $10,000 winner-take-all match that stands as the most famous clash between those two titans, Rod Laver and Pancho Gonzalez? Although he was 41 at the time, Gonzalez beat Laver in a thrilling five-setter.

That Laver-Gonzalez pot may seem like chump change today, but the attendance figures for all three of those exhibition matches are nothing less than eye-popping, and the prominent place those matches occupy in the history of tennis is indisputable.

Last year's BJK Cup final between Serena and Venus Williams was an oddly stilted, forgettable clash, but with Serena out of the event (Ana Ivanovic is taking her place), we might get a quality match, if not one that imperils the status of those legendary exos.

Ivanovic will play Kim Clijsters for the right to play the winner of the Venus Williams-Svetlana Kuznetsova match. I don't know about you, but right about now, with the snow still flying, a Clijsters-Venus match would be as welcome as a day at the beach.