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Article:Gender differences in the top echelon of sports

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Can you imagine the shock waves that would reverberate throughout the world if the following were to go down?

On a mundane Tuesday afternoon, Tiger Woods decides to put away the clubs -- forever.

And then, while every sports talk show host from Miami to Seattle is discussing Woods' shocking decision, Roger Federer puts down his competitive racket -- also for good.

The next freakin' day!

That, basically, happened this week in women's sports when golfer Annika Sorenstam (age 37) said this will be her last season one day, and the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world Justine Henin (age 25) immediately quit her sport the next day, not even waiting around to go for her fifth French Open title.

Yeah, a terrible week indeed for women's sports.

It's hard to argue against the greatness of both athletes. Sorenstam is arguably the best female golfer ever, winning 10 majors and eight player-of-the-year awards.

Henin came after many all-time greats, but she won't be forgotten. Overcoming many personal issues, she won seven grand slam titles -- which is second among current players behind Serena Williams' eight. Most impressive were her quartet of victories at Roland Garros.

So I could easily write a column lauding each woman for her great accomplishments, but I'd rather delve into why they will no longer be competing for championships.

Both women's retirements beg the question: Would Woods (age 32) and Federer (26) suddenly retire even when they know they can still compete at the highest level of their sports?

I highly doubt it. Both still have much to accomplish -- in particular, winning their sport's most majors and grand slams, respectively -- and, also, they both put their sports right at the top of their lives.

I don't know if that's the same for many female athletes, such as Sorenstam and Henin. It can't be denied that both of them could still go out and win the biggest tournaments next weekend. Sorenstam, in fact, was coming off a victory when she made the announcement.

Henin has struggled of late suffered from injuries, but it was a mere eight months ago that she won her second U.S. Open. I'm sure she could have gotten back to that pinnacle of success with hard work.

But she didn't want to. That's the simple retirement tale. She didn't have that same love for the game, and she is ready to do other things, saying, "It is my life as a woman that starts now."

While Brett Favre retired perhaps with a year or two left in the tank, it's not because he wants to do other things. Besides, he was in a much more physical, draining sport than tennis or golf.

The fact is that for many female pro athletes, sport isn't everything, doesn't mean quite as much as it does to most men.

This is very evident in tennis. If the Williams sisters put all their time and effort into the sport, they'd have at least a handful more grand slam titles than the 14 they share. With their talent, they'd both have aspirations of reaching the magical No. 18 that is number of grand slams won by all-time greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

(No, nobody's catching Margaret Court's amazing 24 grand-slam singles titles.)

But Serena and Venus love to create fashion lines and do T.V. commercials and star in Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue.

And, believe me, there is nothing wrong with any of that.

Nobody, however, will argue that those endeavors have taken away from time that could have been spent practicing and conditioning -- and that's also a possible explanation for all the injuries the sisters have sustained over the past few years.

Of course, the most glaring hurdle that female athletes often face is pregnancy. The L.A. Sparks' Lisa Leslie -- arguably the greatest female basketball player of all time -- sat out last season to have her first child. And I'm sure when Henin talks about being a woman, having a family is at the top of her priority list.

I know this is the 21st century, but stay-at-home dads are still few and far between. Most of the time, the mother is going to be taking care of the child. And that in itself can end careers.

In contrast, Woods was able to finish the U.S. Open and then see the birth of Sam Alexis Woods the next day. Of course, it would have made for a better story if he had actually won the tournament. But still not a bad few days.

Lack of money can't be the "it's time to retire" issue in golf and tennis. While the LPGA tournaments' pots are quite smaller than the PGA's, they're still pretty hefty if you do well -- and, of course, there are endorsement opportunities for players of Sorenstam's caliber. And women's tennis players make almost as much as the men. In fact, Wimbledon now has equal shares.

The only mainstream sport in which there's a glaring difference is basketball, where NBA players -- and even Europeans -- make way, way more than your average WNBA player. For many women's players to get by financially, they spend their "offseasons" competing somewhere in Europe.

(You've gotta really love the game to live on two continents each year.)

But the bottom line is, glory and records simply don't mean as much to female superstars as they do to the men. Sorenstam is excited about the life ahead of her, about the new marriage and family and delving into golf course design.

And that's great. She's doing what she's enthusiastic about. But she's also ending her competitive career five majors short of No. 1 on the all-time list, Patty Berg, who has 15.

Could you imagine Woods, in five years, saying, "You know, I'd rather start designing some stellar par-3s?" when he's three majors shy of Jack Nicklaus' record 18? No, I'd be surprised if Woods leaves the PGA Tour before he hits 50.

The truth for many female athletes is that once they hit a certain age -- which is usually in their 20s -- they become comfortable. They've got the money. They've got the trophy case. Why continue to pour everything into a game?

Thinking about it makes it impressive that Sorenstam stayed competitive for this long -- you don't hear of too many 37-year-old women still beating the tails of 19-year-olds.

So don't be shocked by what transpired in a matter of two days this week. And don't think that Sorenstam or Henin is regretting their decision. Rather, they're probably relieved, and loving the idea of beginning the next stage of their lives.

It might seem weird to us males. Heck, Julio Franco almost made it to 50 in Major League Baseball. But consider it a gender difference.

And definitely cheer the fact that we can be 100 percent certain that neither athlete injected herself with HGH to prolong her career.

Take that, Roger.


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