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Friday, June 6, 2008
Best vs. best doesn't happen often, so enjoy it

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

Now, a brief pause while the sports world takes a collective step backward, just long enough to see both the forest and the trees.

And the answer is: Tiger vs. Phil in the first two rounds at the U.S. Open is heaven, not hell.

Plenty to enjoy

The sports menu is overflowing with top-flight matchups this week. The offerings:

French Open Men's Final
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal meet Sunday at Roland Garros. It is their third consecutive French Open final and their fifth Grand Slam final overall. Nadal can become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1978-81 to win the tourney four years in a row. Federer needs it to complete a career Grand Slam. More coverage



NBA Finals: Lakers vs. Celtics
There have been 61 NBA finals contested. The Lakers and Celtics have won 30 of them. The clubs are meeting for the 11th time in the finals, but the first time since 1987, when the Lakers won in six games. Boston holds an 8-2 overall advantage. More coverage



Woods-Mickelson in U.S. Open
Tiger Woods is the undisputed No. 1 golfer in the world. Phil Mickelson is a clear No. 2. They only played together once in the U.S. Open, and that was nearly a decade ago. Thanks to the U.S. Golf Association, they're paired together for the first two days of this year's Open at Torrey Pines near San Diego. More coverage



Big Brown in the Belmont
We know who's No. 1 in this matchup: the undefeated horse looking for the first Triple Crown in 30 years. What we don't know is who's No. 2...if any horse. More coverage

(Lather. Rinse. Repeat.)

Pitting 1 versus 2, that is, is never a bad thing. Never, ever, ever. Not for the fans, not for the TV executives, not for the French Open aficionados who find themselves in the outrageously fortunate position to see Roger Federer battle Rafael Nadal, not for the U.S. audiences who can't help but wax nostalgic as they watch the Lakers and Celtics drag each other up and down the floor.

Heck, we'll throw in Big Brown versus his own left front hoof, which is as close to a top-two matchup as the Belmont may get. Put the two best in any category out there -- champion versus nemesis, king versus jealous prince -- and the average sports fan is going to walk away happy, or at least verifiably entertained. What else is there?

For a sports month that can produce droughts of unwatchability and occasional reflexive cries of "Awful!" from the general populace, June has been gifted with an embarrassing abundance of stuff in 2008 -- and it's all on display in the next week. You don't always see it coming.

The Woods-Mickelson pairing at Torrey Pines seems ordained by the golf gods, even though it was crafted by canny USGA mortals. The Kobes and the Garnetts had to push through three rounds of playoffs, some more harrowing than others, to finally produce the most intriguing West-East matchup in years. Federer is No. 1 in the world, but Nadal is the ruler of the French. That collision is a stroke of luck for even the casual follower of the sport.

Can anyone explain how any of this is a bad thing? It'd be grand theater to see Woods and Mickelson take their Torrey testiness to the final round together, but that's up to them and to fate -- and what lies between is an Open tournament that annually grinds up good golfers and often produces upstart challenges. The only pairing of the two that is guaranteed comes Thursday and Friday, and it arrives with no real-world downside.

If you hear golf fans grousing about that (The crowds! The timing!), surely one contributor to that emotion is the absence of tease that normally accompanies such a thing: Will Tiger and Phil play themselves into that final-day showdown? Usually, it's an utter unknown, and it is a great sort of friction to carry along through the first three days of a tournament. Alas, it rarely works out.

Adam Scott notwithstanding, the Woods-Mickelson barbecue and marshmallow roast is already the most entertaining thing about the Open. Woods has won at Torrey six times; Mickelson, a three-time winner, practically grew up on the course as a native of San Diego. If I don't have to wait for a sure-hope-it-all-works-out Sunday matchup, why should I?

USGA executive Mike Davis might have said the magic words that get people voted off the island ("The heck with what TV wants," Davis told The Associated Press, "let's do what we want for the championship"), but he's absolutely right. Bring on 1 versus 2, in any form, at any time. We'll take it and run like a thief, just as soon as we can navigate the parking lot and the traffic on I-5.

The Celts-Lakers frenzy isn't all about Kobe and Kevin, or even necessarily mostly about them. It's really about the Celts and the Lakers, which means it is really about the history. Boston-L.A. might feel different emotionally from, say, Red Sox-Yankees, but in both cases, the joy lies in the subtext; that is, in the past. In grudges and blown calls and stolen rings, stuff like that. The visceral, in sports, is always good. Hate, in sports, works remarkably well.

You wonder how many Americans will take close note of Nadal-Federer, but it's the kind of matchup that keeps tennis chugging along on the international level. Federer might be the top-ranked player in the world since forever, but it is Nadal who has won three straight French titles. Along the way, he has beaten Federer thrice in Paris, once in the semis and in each of the past two championship matches. He's No. 2 in the rankings but No. 1 at the French. Again, good theater.

The longer I'm around sports, the more easily I come to the conclusion that a whole lot of what fans do is wait for a better matchup. They endure the slog of the baseball schedule (not that it is without its charms) in hopes of a great playoff. They watch the Celtics stumble out of the playoff gate and secretly hope the team somehow will get it together long enough to face the Kobes. There are an awful lot of folks, people who aren't Yankees fans, who wouldn't mind if the Yanks got into contention, if only to bring out the best (or at least the most emotional) in the Red Sox.

Titans make for great matches. Not the Tennessee Titans -- they're not 1 or 2. But when the real giants mix it up, even if it is only at the first tee on a Thursday morning in La Jolla, it's a guaranteed moment, and upon such moments are the rest of the sports year sustained. Enjoy, and don't look back.

Mark Kreidler is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com. His book "Six Good Innings," about the pressure-filled season of one Little League team intent on upholding its town's championship tradition, will be released on July 1 and can be preordered now. His book "Four Days to Glory" has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment.