Here’s what makes rivalries so great: There will come a time in the moments before the game starts where you as a fan will feel internally a contradiction between the overwhelming excitement at the thought of beating your rival and the crippling fear at the idea that you might lose to them. It will be great, or it will be terrible. There is no in-between in rivalry games. There is nothing else in sports that provokes such a paradoxical sentiment in a fan.
That’s why we’re taking the time to figure out, “What was the best sports rivalry of the Aughts?” John S, Tim, and Pierre all took different stances on this one, and they anxiously await your opinions. After all, they’re kind of rivals themselves.
JOHN S: Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees
The best rivalry of the decade is the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Perhaps you want to accuse me of bias, since I have a personal rooting interest in this rivalry? Well, bollocks. If anything, a Yankee fan would try to forget this decade of the rivalry. This was the decade, after all, when the Red Sox finally broke “the Curse”—the first decade in which the Red Sox won the World Series since the Woodrow Wilson Administration. They also won two pennants in the Aughts, something that they also hadn’t done since before Armistice Day.
But that’s what makes the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry so unforgettable: It has decades of history to back it up. Even before the Aughts began, the Yankees and Red Sox had the best rivalry in sports, and this decade featured some of the historic rivalry’s best moments: The famous brawl during Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS, Grady Little’s notorious trip to the mound in Game 7 of that series and Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run later that game, the (overrated) Dave Roberts steal and David Ortiz’s walk-off hits on consecutive nights, Curt Schilling’s “bloody sock” game, and the Red Sox breaking the Curse.
Even aside from the historic moments, though, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was the best on a day-to-day basis of any rivalry in sports. Baseball’s schedule, in which divisional rivals play 19 times in the regular season, is conducive to sustained rivalries, and the Yankees and Red Sox battled for AL East division title in all but one season this decade. They finished 1 and 2 (even finishing with identical records in 2005) in all but two seasons, and were neck and neck in 2006 until the Yankees’ five-game sweep of Boston in Fenway in late August sent the Red Sox into a tailspin.
And those regular season meetings often had the intensity and excitement of postseason games: Mike Mussina’s near-perfect game at Fenway in 2001, Derek Jeter’s dive into the stands in 2004, and the Red Sox’s repeated ability to make Mariano Rivera seem almost human were some of the most memorable regular-season moments of the Aughts.
And that kind of sustained tension and competitiveness is what makes a rivalry great. The other rivalries of the decade had none of this: The Patriots and Colts are not really “rivals”: They don’t play in the same division; there is no historical animosity between the franchises; and with two or three exceptions, all of their meetings this decade were one-sided or otherwise nondescript. They are two football teams that happen to be good at the same time. Manning and Brady are rivals, but this isn’t basketball: An individual rivalry doesn’t make a team rivalry.
As for Nadal-Federer, that only became a real rivalry recently. For most of the Aughts, Nadal dominated on clay and Federer on other surfaces. Is there any doubt, though, that Federer is the superior player overall? Is anyone calling Nadal the greatest ever?
Only the Yankees-Red Sox have had the sustained tension and sustained back-and-forth that makes for a truly great rivalry. And that’s why it’s the best rivalry of the Aughts.
TIM: Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots
The NFL’s best rivalries have often been defined by intradivision foes: Steelers-Browns, Redskins-Cowboys, Packers-Bears, Texans-Jaguars. That’s what makes it so strange that the Patriots and Colts began their rivalry the year after Indianapolis moved out of the AFC East. Since realignment placed the Colts in the AFC South in 2002, New England and Indianapolis have waged the NFL’s best rivalry since the Steelers and Raiders in the 1970s. Even in a decade that has seen another team in the AFC win two Super Bowls, appear in two other AFC Championships, have a 15-1 season, and snap the Pats’ then-record regular-season winning streak, the Patriots and Colts have been the dominant franchises in the NFL, and their near-annual regular-season meeting* has been the most anticipated game of the season since at least 2004. It’s appointment viewing for the entire nation; not just the northeast (cough…Sox-Yanks…cough). That regular-season game is the barometer for how the rest of the season and the postseason will go in the AFC: Whoever won during the regular season had a better seed and thus homefield advantage in the playoffs. Earlier in the decade, the story was how the Colts could never get past the Patriots. Indianapolis shifted the tide with a 2005 victory, foreshadowing the epic 2006 AFC Championship—won by the Colts in large part because they were at home. In 2007, New England’s comeback win in Indy made 16-0 a legitimate possibility; the Colts’ win this year did the same.
*Thanks to the genius of the NFL scheduling system, the two teams will continue to meet every year if they keep winning their divisions.
Furthermore, no rivalry in NFL history has featured transcendent quarterbacks in their respective primes the way Pats-Colts has showcased Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. By now undoubtedly two of the seven best to ever play the position,* Brady and Manning have combined to win four MVPs—with Manning en route to No. 5 this season—and three Super Bowl MVPs while producing some of the greatest statistical seasons in NFL history. You can’t tell me Brady wasn’t more motivated to break Manning’s touchdown record than he was to break Marino’s, or that it isn’t perfectly fitting that Brady’s first career start was against Indianapolis.
*The list, in no order: Manning, Brady, Montana, Marino, Elway, Unitas, Favre.
They have moreover represented two different football sensibilities: There is the inside-the-dome refined finesse of Manning versus the in-the-elements just-enough-plays-to-win nature of Brady (excepting 2007, of course). The stark contrast between their coaches—the shrewd cheater in Bill Belichick foiled by the polite gentleman in Tony Dungy—only exacerbated the enmity between the two sides.
Brady and Manning are nothing short of the Bird and Magic of our time, and Pats-Colts is our Lakers-Celtics. It is the best rivalry of the Aughts.
PIERRE: Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal
Your silly little team rivalries are cute, no? What with the fan bases all getting up in arms and players proclaiming how much they hate the other side, right up until the point they start donning its uniform. The Yankees and Red Sox provided a particularly exciting chapter in their rivalry this decade while the Patriots and Colts became intertwined in a way they haven’t been before and likely never will again. As for the intensity of that NFL rivalry, I shudder to think of the cold response a Bostonian might get if he ever travels to Indianapolis. Fear for the life, am I right?
Of course, team rivalries are more about the fans than the actual participants. How much can a Red Sock hate a Yankee if he up and joins them a season later? Believe me, Adam Vinatieri’s betrayal in signing with the Colts doesn’t add to their rivalry with New England; it undercuts it entirely.
Sports’ greatest rivalries have always come in the individual arena: Ali-Frazier, Evert-Navratilova, Kerrigan-Harding. These are rivalries so intense that the actual participants set out to injure the opponent—although in boxing that is somewhat constitutive of the event itself.
Tennis, in particular, lends itself to a fierce one-on-one rivalry in a way unseen in golf—where you play the course, not the opponent—or boxing—where you compete on a roughly annual basis. Tennis presents us with four chances of seeing two elite players compete d’homme à homme. And in the Aughts, no two men competed more consistently, more voraciously, and more transcendently than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
While they met only 20 times in the decade, seven of those came in Grand Slam Finals. Three of their last four Grand Slam meetings lasted five sets. One of those is the greatest tennis match ever played; it has so obviously earned that title that even one of my less-than-insightful colleagues acknowledged it as such last week.
There was a moment, in the 1980s, during a basketball game when a broadcaster by the name of Brent Musburger said in reference to Larry Bird, “You are watching what greatness is all about.” It is a feeling I get whenever I watch Federer and Nadal do battle; their strokes are sharper and crisper, their rallies longer and more exhilarating, their winners from more unfathomable angles than any other tennis matches in history. They produce breathtaking moments for tennis veterans and neophytes alike with an alarming consistency. It is nigh impossible to pick out the best shot in a Federer-Nadal match because they are likely to top it—and soon.
To say they bring out the best in each other is an understatement. No, they bring out the best in tennis, the best in sport.