The rivalry can even be lopsided, as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer's has become, and still be mesmerizing. Both of them, after all, are in the thick of the Best Player Ever discussion, and by the time Rafa is done they could easily be 1-2.
Nadal got the better of Federer again Sunday, fending him off in four sets to win his record-tying sixth French Open title. And once again, Federer was reminded that playing Rafa is like playing an octopus. Good luck getting the ball past any of his eight rackets.
But as you watched the match unfold, topspin forehand by laser backhand - and secretly prayed, perhaps, for a fifth set - it was hard not to wish, too, that there were more rivalries like this, more occasions when greatness met greatness and forced it to be greater still. Our games don't have nearly enough of them.
It's nobody's fault, necessarily. It's just the way it is. Nadal and Federer have faced off 25 times now (Rafa 17, Roger 8), and they might be good for another half-dozen or so. What other sport can give you that kind of sustained confrontation, in this case spanning eight years, usually with a major championship at stake?
Boxing - tennis with blood - certainly can't. Jake LaMotta liked to joke that he "fought Sugar Ray Robinson so often, I got diabetes," You know how many times they climbed in the ring together? Six (which is still quite a few by pugilistic standards). Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had half that many bouts, and Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns squared off just twice. (Heck, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield couldn't even finish their rematch before Holyfield ran out of ears.)
Golf's rivalries can't compare to tennis', either. Take Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. There might be 11 weeks all year that they're competing in the same event. And how frequently have they been partnered on Sunday - or come down the stretch, both of them, with a chance to win? The sport just doesn't provide that kind of drama on a regular basis. (And anyway, any golfer will tell you he's "playing the course," not the other guys on the leader board.)
As for team sports, the rivalries tend to be more between the franchises than between the athletes. Unless two players play opposing positions - and their clubs are in the same division (and cross paths all the time) - how much of a rivalry is it, really? People always made a big deal about the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird matchups, but Magic was a point guard and Larry a small forward. It was a Lakers-Celtics rivalry to a far greater degree than it was a Johnson-Bird rivalry.
(The rivalry between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, on the other hand, was one of the all-timers - because both were centers and their teams met as many as 19 times a year, counting the playoffs. But that was four decades ago. Because of expansion, clubs don't meet 19 times a year anymore. And besides, there's been only one Russell and one Wilt.)
What about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, you ask? Well, yes, they've had a good thing going in recent years. Since 2001, they've gone head-to-head 12 times - about half as many as Nadal and Federer. Only three of those Patriots-Colts games, moreover, have come in the playoffs, and none, obviously, has been the Super Bowl. Rafa and Roger, by contrast, have dueled in nine Grand Slam finals. (We won't even get into the fact that Brady and Manning aren't on the field at the same time.)
Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby could be in the Brady-Manning class, but only if Ovechkin starts holding up his end. Six years into his career, he still hasn't gotten the Capitals past the second round. Crosby's Penguins, meanwhile, have reached the finals twice and won it all in 2009, eliminating the Caps in the process.
No, the best rivalries, the purest rivalries - undiluted by teammates or technology (see auto racing) - are tennis rivalries. You think of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi (Sampras, 20-14). You think of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors (McEnroe, 20-14). You think, further back, of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall (hundreds of matches, according to accounts, with Laver holding the upper hand). On the women's side, you think of the Williams sisters (Serena 13, Venus 10) and, before them, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert (Martina, 43-37). You also think of the Rivalry Interrupted (Steffi Graf 9, Monica Seles 5).
There's nothing in other sports to compete with these. They're the rivalries that have no rival - two tremendous athletes, over the course of a decade or more, measuring themselves against each other.
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