Aught Lang Syne: Rivalries of the Decade

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.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Douglas on December 30, 2009 at 3:54 PM

    You all wanted a response, so here goes:

    To John:

    How do you respond to Tim’s incisive point that the interest in the Sox-Yankees rivalry is very regionally concentrated? What about Josh’s point about betrayals? Specifically the fact that Boston’s “Jesus” Damon played for both teams?

    In defense of Josh’s point, we should clarify the stakes of the Nadal-Federer rivalry. Federer and Nadal aren’t fighting to determine which of them will be the greatest in history. Rather, they are locked in an intense struggle for one man’s legacy. Federer wants his name on the short list for the greatest of all time, and Nadal wants either to erase it or to be the asterisk next to it. This admittedly makes for a less exciting rivalry (and I don’t mean to imply that Nadal’s aspirations are limited simply to beating Federer) but it still remains that the only person standing between Federer and total domination of the sport is Nadal.

    To Tim:
    Your point about national relevancy is well taken, but would you then concede that the Federer-Nadal rivalry should be given credit for greater global relevancy? Entire countries rally around those players. Intuitively I don’t think that we should have to pay attention to fan bases outside the US…but maybe that’s not intuition…maybe that’s mostly because I don’t want to entertain any arguments for soccer rivalries *shudder*. (Italy and France, World Cup, anybody?)

    To Josh:
    I’m not sure I’m sold on your point that the greatest rivalries come in one-on-one competition. A rivalry like the Lakers and the Celtics, or even a lesser one like the Jazz and the Bulls, encompasses entire cities and regions. People take sides and, importantly, take sides for very different reasons. The mere number of different jerseys worn to support the Red Sox/Yankees and Pats/Colts indicates the extent to which fans personalize their investment in a given rivalry. Granted, this would happen even in the absence of a rivalry, but within a rivalry it heightens it. Fans love or hate players based on their hometowns, what colleges they played for, even for performances on fantasy teams. The emotional investment is deep and complex. I agree that everyone enjoys watching a Federer-Nadal match, but have you ever seen someone throw the remote in disgust when Federer aces Nadal? Do people go to sports bars to watch Federer and Nadal and trash-talk opposing fans? Maybe they do, but I’ve never known anyone to really care about the outcome as much as the combined performance. If anything, many people (short of the die-hard fans) seem to support the prolongation of the rivalry itself rather than the emergence of a clear winner. In contrast, I don’t think John would care at all if the Yankees won the next ten thousand games against the Red Sox. In fact, he’s probably dreamed about it. Shouldn’t the greatest rivalry produce the most divided sets of fans?


    • Posted by Tim on December 30, 2009 at 5:00 PM

      To Douglas:

      I agree that Federer and Nadal perhaps have greater global relevance than the Patriots and Colts; at the same time, we’re dealing with sports here in America (thus, no soccer rivalries, as you are so right to shudder at the thought of), and the huge gap between the domestic popularity of football and that of tennis seems to me to outweigh any “advantage” tennis might have abroad.

      To respond to some of John S’s points in the Yankees-Red Sox section:

      What John S construes as cons of the Patriots-Colts rivalry (i.e. lack of historical animosity, the fact they are in different divisions, etc.), I see as benefits. Look at what these two teams overcame to still have the most significant football rivalry in 30 years! They did it in the decade where they moved out of the same division! They made their one game a year more memorable than the Yanks and Sox’s 19 (which, with one or two exceptions, were nondescript AND meaningless). It often didn’t matter who emerged on top in the regular season because home-field advantage means so little in baseball (whereas the team with home-field has won all three playoff meetings between NE and IND en route to an SB title).

      And to call them “two football teams that happen to be good at the same time” is ignorant. There are a lot of teams that have happened to be good during this time that haven’t developed rivalries (the Steelers don’t have one with the Colts or Patriots).


  2. Posted by Douglas on December 30, 2009 at 3:57 PM

    *To Pierre: Je suis desole–that final comment was directed to you. I assumed that the three debaters would be Tim, John S, and Josh.

    **To Josh: Why didn’t you weigh in on this one?


    • Posted by Josh on December 30, 2009 at 4:13 PM

      Because I agree with John S.


    • Apology accepted, Douglas. One of my favorite details of your English is the little word game you play with “assume.”

      I attempted to make clear in my argument that the greatest rivalries transcend petty notions of fandom; if a fantasy tennis league would intensify the rivalry between Roger and Rafa, we have different ideas of the term (although, I do think you downplay the extent to which tennis fans adore Roger Federer. I have yet to encounter a single individual who prefers Nadal. My theory is that Nadal’s performance against Federer undercuts to an extent the argument that Roger is the greatest player of all time, and we all want to witness true transcendence).

      The rivalry is truly about what happens “between the lines.” And despite the respect the two afford one another, I can tell you that there is far greater enmity between Federer and Nadal than there is in any team sport rivalry this decade. And it is Pierre’s long-held belief that the greatest rivalry should produce division amongst its participants before doing likewise for its fans. If the goal is animosity amongst fans, wouldn’t the Yankees and Red Sox win in perpetuity, almost regardless of on-field performance?


  3. Posted by John S on December 30, 2009 at 7:18 PM

    To Tim’s response to my response:

    I agree with you that it is somewhat impressive that the Patriots and Colts managed to sustain a rivalry without being divisional foes, but it still limits what they can achieve: Patriots fans and Colts fans don’t really hate each other. In a few years, they won’t really view each other as anything special. And my point about them being two teams that happened to be good at the same time was meant to illustrate simply this: The Pats-Colts rivalry is almost entirely about Brady and Manning. If one of them were on the Steelers, it would be a Steelers-Colts/Pats rivalry.

    To Pierre’s point:

    Individual sports do create rivalries that are perhaps more intense for the competitors. As Tim pointed out in June, Roger Federer and Rafa do seem to have a healthy animosity/respect for each other. But as Tim ALSO pointed out in his introduction, part of what makes the concept of a rivalry in sports so compelling is how it impacts a fan: That simultaneous feeling of dread and hope preceding a game. And while there certainly are Federer/Nadal partisans, most tennis fans, casual and serious, are simply happy to watch them duel for five epic sets, no matter who wins. By contrast, a Yankees/Red Sox game in mid-May that NY wins 11-0 can make Yankee fans euphorically happy, and Red Sox fans equally distraught. Saying that “team rivalries are more about the fans than the participants” doesn’t really make the case that they are worse.

    To Douglas:

    Firstly, I do agree that the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry is regionally concentrated, but fandom itself is regionally concentrated. And the fact that the teams have been nationally relevant throughout the decade makes the rivalry itself nationally relevant. I actually think the fact that the Pats/Colts rivalry is not regionally concentrated hurts it: The two fans have very little interaction or personal animosity. On the flip side, NYC and Boston have rivalries in other sports, and are even rivals in terms of “which city is better.” There is also a realistic chance that a Yankees fan and a Bosox fan would cross paths, something that doesn’t really exist for Pats/Colts fans.

    As for the “betrayals” of guys like Clemens, Damon, Boggs, Cone, etc., this does prove that the rivalry is about the fans, but, again, so what? I, as well as pretty much everyone else, view sports as a fan.

    And I don’t really mean to knock the Federer/Nadal rivalry. Unlike the Pats/Colts, Federer and Nadal will almost always be tied together in peoples’ memories because of their epic matches. But, at the same time, rivalries in individual sports are simply not as polarizing for fans as team rivalries. I’m always happy to watch Federer and Nadal play, but, as Doug pointed out, I’ve never seen someone get angry or throw something across the room during a match. Maybe they do in Spain or Switzerland, but I can’t speak to that.


  4. Posted by James Schneider on December 31, 2009 at 1:15 AM

    No Duke-UNC? I mean, this was the biggest decade for that(unless your counting the Art Heyman days), its the biggest in its sport, and its the most polarizing rivalry. I mean, I haven’t gone to college, and I have no real reason to root for any college basketball team, but at this point I’m a pretty invested Duke fan. Before I started watching the Duke games several years ago, I didn’t watch regular season college basketball, and now its my favorite sport. So a lot of my interest can be attributed to North Carolina because sports just aren’t as interesting if you don’t have someone to root against. Also, I talk to kids my age and they almost always pick a side, there’s none of the “I like the patriots, but Peyton Manning’s good.”It has the element of the non-betrayals and w/e too.


    • Posted by Tim on January 2, 2010 at 2:43 PM


      I’ll agree with your implied belief that college rivalries are theoretically best: Players choose their school and stick with it for life (unless you’re a Duke reserve not gettin’ enough PT), and most of the fans have a legitimate investment in the team they root for (courtesy of being alums).

      I do take issue with your anecdotal evidence, though. I imagine most of your “friends” picked Duke or Carolina as their favorite college basketball team (because they’re frontrunners like most kids and why not choose one of the teams always on television). Most of the people you talk to regarding the Patriots and Colts, however, probably aren’t Patriots or Colts’ fans themselves–thus the respect afforded both sides. It’s more an “I prefer the Patriots, but I acknowledge Manning’s quality as a quarterback” feeling for them–a perspective a lot of New England fans likely don’t articulate the same way.

      Furthermore, there was no college rivalry that reaches the high standards the three we argued for did. You mention Duke and Carolina, which is obviously a fantastic rivalry that produces scintillating basketball on an almost annual basis. However, the two teams met only three times in the ACC Tournament–and all were decided by double digits (in the Blue Devils’ favor, I might add). Their great games, then, are always regular-season encounters, and so it’s kind of like the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry if the two hadn’t met in the ALCS and that extra-inning game won by John Flaherty was the best the two conjured up all decade.

      Another contender mentioned to me was Texas and Oklahoma in football, but those games were decided by a touchdown or less only twice in 10 years (they were more often decided by 40 or more). This was a bad decade for college football rivalries, with Florida State and Miami (probably the ’90s best rivalry) dissipating as both teams declined, Ohio State consistently beating Michigan, and Auburn and Alabama rarely waging a memorable game (’09 excepted). That’s why I pointed out in my Top 10 Games post for the sport that Auburn and LSU had “the best and most consistent rivalry in the Aughts.” And clearly, that rivalry doesn’t compare to the three here.


  5. Posted by Wey on January 2, 2010 at 3:33 PM

    yeah, I mean Duke-UNC probably wasn’t even the best rivalry in the conference this decade, which is pretty telling


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