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Friday, September 4, 2009
This Sporting Life: Fish and bicycles

By Jeff MacGregor
Page 2

Steffi Graf
If we're going to talk about the equality of greatness, then Steffi takes center stage.

From the tottering Jenga tower of my thoughts, a few notions this week on tennis and on women and on men, on the blonde promise of smooth youth, on Afghanistan and revelation, on what gets dragged up in the Net and the persistent mystery of human cruelty, on time zones and end zones and the West Coast bias of a vampire TV schedule. On how late is too late for me to see a Duck sucker-punch a buckaroo? Much too late, it turns out. Down goes Hout! Down goes Hout! Out goes Blount!

(And as a sop to clicks and jawbreakers and service journalism for all you football fans, here's the rest of your character-building holiday weekend injury forecast: hand, hand, finger, thumb; knees, toes, ankles, nose; arms, legs, hearts and minds; thighbone, legbone, neckbone, craw; groin, groin, groin, groin; inflammation accompanied by swelling, confusion and dry mouth -- after four hours call your doctor or fly to Vegas; everyone and everything everywhere will be a game-day decision. Fifty percent chance of rain, sun, contusion, letdown, concussion and paragraphs that track like something from the late beloved John Leonard. Take the points, two aspirin, a strong drink and a long nap.)

While my colleagues and I have done a reasonable job these last few years writing and talking and thinking about Roger Federer and his unquestionable excellence, the U.S. Open this week out in Flushing brought to mind a question: If the number of Open-era Grand Slams won is the truest measure of your all-time greatness, why aren't we talking more about Steffi Graf?

In two important categories (or at least in two categories we deem important when they suit our arguments), she outpoints the Swiss by a wide margin. Grand Slam singles titles won, Graf: 22. Federer: 15. Weeks ranked No. 1 in the whole wide world, Graf: 377. Federer: about a hundred fewer and slowly gaining (his is a running tally, after all.) Against the best competition of her era, Mrs. Agassi, who retired 10 years ago, was the more successful.

So head-to-head and all things being equal, I'd like to be hearing a lot more about Steffi Graf as the greatest of all time, not just the greatest woman of all time. I am put in mind of this now, I think, because the Open is played at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. And because at a time when the pay gap between the sexes across the rest of the American landscape remains an astounding 20 percent to 30 percent, the Open is one of the few sporting events in which the prize money for the men and for the women is exactly and admirably the same.

Trouble is, things are never truly equal. There's a hearts and minds dilemma at work deep inside every one of us, man/woman us/them, no matter how good our intentions. Our other big trouble here is the definition of "great" or "greatness" or "greatest" in any sports argument. It's too vague and fluid a concept to have any real meaning.

Still, I send a geezer's shout-out here to greats Chris Evert (18 majors) and Martina Navratilova (18) as well, both of whom outpoint the Swiss logo-maker in the category of singles Grand Slams won. (Tallying doubles and mixed-doubles, Ms. Navratilova crushes all comers with 59 Grand Slam titles overall. 59.)

A shout-out too, for young Melanie Oudin -- only 59 Grand Slams to go -- uncorrupted yet by money or fame or age, and her upset of fourth-ranked Elena Dementieva. It was fun to watch. Oudin's motor, power, precision, touch and bright blond promise of American youth, effervescent with the kind of teen enthusiasm usually seen only in the Jonas Brothers' mosh pit or in cell-phone commercials, was an absolute restorative. Sports headline ca. 2015: "You can't spell Houdini without Oudin."

So there's a lot to see and hear and feel and consider in the Flushing fortnight.

And it delivers one of the most important things sports does for us all: It allows us the opportunity to write and talk and think about deeper human truths without scaring ourselves sick. This is not true everywhere, however.

At a time when many of us in the West freely and routinely question definitions of sex equity and gender equality (just ask Caster Semenya or Erin Andrews how freely), and what makes a man or a woman what and who they are, I enclose a personal note to a friend and colleague I've never met. His name is Parwez Kambakhsh.

Read about him here.

Parwez is a young journalist in Afghanistan. Not much older than Melanie Oudin, in fact. Last year he was sentenced to death for doing exactly what I'm doing right now. He had the temerity to question the nature of the relationship between men and women. In doing so, he downloaded from the Internet some literature that rankled the sensitivities of those who defend strict Islamic teachings on that matter.

And was sentenced to death for his curiosity.

On appeal, his sentence has been reduced to a mere 20 years in an Afghan prison. Where he remains while Afghanistan, beset from within and without, continues to crumble around him. Organizations like PEN American Center and Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists do what they can. I stay in touch as much as possible with his brother Yaqub, another journalist, himself at risk of imprisonment.

You'll hear more about them as we work our way to the World Cup. Both of the brothers love soccer. In fact, Parwez was playing soccer when they came to arrest him.

I had hoped to get an update from them to include in this column, but haven't received an answer to an e-mail I sent several days ago. My worry and my respect for both of them deepen. On your behalf, reader, I send our best regards from the U.S.

Open still.

Hold brothers. Hold.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.