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Michigan vs. Ohio State in football; Fairfield vs. Quinnipiac in tennis: some rivalries are bigger than others, but they all have one thing in common
The football powerhouses are the subjects of a new docuseries, RIVALS, debuting nationally on Tennis Channel this Sunday at 7 p.m. EST.
Published Nov 18, 2022
WATCH: Jon Wertheim on the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—his inspiration for Strokes of Genius and RIVALS.
When I asked Lee Walker, Head Coach of Women’s Tennis at Texas Christian University, and Ed Paige, Coordinator of Tennis Operations at Fairfield University (Conn.), about the best rivalries in college tennis, it was as if I had asked them to choose their favorite player from their respective squads.
“TCU and Baylor have built a really big one,” says Walker, who would know.
“A&M and Texas,” adds Paige, not overlooking the Lone Star State’s other heated rivals.
“Florida-Georgia, for a long time,” continues Walker. (“Definitely,” Paige agrees.)
“I put UCLA-USC right at the top,” Paige says, before acknowledging Stanford-Cal.
“UCLA-USC, Stanford-Cal,” Walker concurs, as if on cue.
“Quinnipiac, always,” Paige notes about his women’s squad.
“Duke-UNC, I think of that one a lot,” muses Walker.
“Wake-Virginia,” Paige makes sure to add.
Point being, great rivalries abound in sports, at every level of competition, even if the most famous clashes garner the brightest lights and largest audiences.
They don’t get more famous than The Game, as Michigan vs. Ohio State is known, which marries passion with prestige and leads to college football’s ultimate division. But other rivalries are no less intense—and it’s why Tennis Channel’s Jon Wertheim and TC Studios have taken a deep dive into what a “rivalry” really is. What does it mean to those who are passionate about it, and why? How is it that these competitions can exert such a pull in our lives?
Enter RIVALS, a new docuseries which showcases the many ways great rivalries transcend time and borders, shape mass culture, affect millions, and even reach into the worlds of business and politics. And, as we so often find when we identify with a particular sports rivalry ourselves, how they relate to the individual rivalries in each of our own daily lives.
“Michigan-Ohio State is a big match-up, in The Big 10,” Walker says. He was referring to tennis, but he could just as easily have been talking about football, gymnastics, moot court, the culinary arts or ultimate frisbee.
In any of these disciplines, competitors feel something different when the opponent is your rival. And everyone treats that phenomenon differently.
“We really think it’s important to acknowledge all of that stuff on the front end, because it is different,” Walker says about the unique feelings about facing a rival. “Especially when you know the response from the other team or the other coach is going to be a certain way.”
In a TCU match against Baylor last year, the teams’ two top players collided for the third time in the season. Their rivalry was not just about the schools they represented, but as individuals. By this point, the two knew each other’s games inside and out. It was what each player brought beyond forehands and backhands that would make the difference, and what Walker and his Horned Frogs focused on more than anything.
“Body language, antics—how she looks at you and talks to you, talks to the referee, talks to the team,” Walker recalls saying to his player. “Those things that really get under your skin.”
Walker’s approach to this rivalry? Let’s talk about that, “go there,” put it all out on the table.
“I remember being very clear with her and giving two options: you can engage it, and if you feel like you’re getting bullied on the court, you’re going to bully the bully; or, we’re going to ignore. But we’re going to decide right now.”
That is easier said than done, as anyone that’s played in a rivalry can attest. Getting caught up in the moment can lead to an inspiring achievement, or a crushing mistake, or anything in between. One of the best examples occurred in 2016, with Ohio State trailing Michigan by three points, at home, in double overtime. The winner would claim the Big Ten East title and have a path to the national championship; the loser’s season was essentially over.
On 4th & 1, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer eschewed a short field goal attempt, which would have likely tied the game and extended overtime, and went for it. The bold decision would effectively give the Buckeyes a great opportunity to win the game, or lose it right then and there.
Here’s what happened:
Ohio State would go on to win the game; both teams were 10-1 entering this contest. Next week, when they meet for the 118th time, they’re both expected to both be 11-0.
And that’s the other thing about rivalries: as much as you think you’ve seen everything, there’s always another chapter, another twist, another moment for the history books. Or, in the case of Ohio State vs. Michigan, another part of a special two-hour documentary (airing this Sunday, November 20, at 7 p.m. EST on Tennis Channel).
“The first go-round, in the regular season, you want to hold your cards,” Paige says about how his Fairfield tennis teams approach their rivalry matches. “The best-case scenario, almost, is to lose 3-4.”
Both Paige and Walker believe it’s easier to respond in the rivalry in the biggest moments—typically during conference play in the postseason—when the opponent believes it’s already thrown a knockout punch.
“I didn’t necessarily want them to peak, I just wanted them to maintain,” says Paige, who also acknowledged that other coaches many feel differently.
“Some people rise to the occasion, others don’t, and you never know.”
What does it mean to those who are passionate about it, and why? How is it that these competitions can exert such a pull in our lives?
While TCU and Fairfield tennis can take a longer-term approach to rivalries, given that they often face their rival more than once per season, that’s not the case when it comes to Ohio State and Michigan in football. That doesn’t make college tennis rivalries any less significant, but it does place a greater urgency on one, single game. The Game, in fact.
How then, to describe this particular rivalry?
“You really don’t have a clue until you’re into it,” said one fan on the Michigan-Ohio State divide.
“It is the week that I can’t wait for,” said another.
“This is sports—and life,” posits RIVALS.
Let’s agree on this, then: you know a rivalry when you see it. And given the amount of fans in the stands at Ohio State vs. Michigan, and the amount of time coaches devote to unpacking TCU vs. Baylor and Fairfield vs. Quinnipiac, it’s clear that rivalry is everywhere—and everything to those involved.