WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In London last week while lunching with the eminent historian and Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert, I watched the third youngest woman tennis player ever to win Wimbledon achieve that pinnacle. It was a memorable moment in sport.
I now have returned stateside, as it appears Miss Maria Sharapova has, too, and a sense of dread creeps in. She is on the American talk shows, where the talking heads ask the cheesiest questions of her. They ask about the money she anticipates, the "celebrity" parties she will be attending, the GLITZ -- a fantastic thing about which the media's high and mighty are obviously conflicted. When the GLITZ is spotted surrounding certain figures, say a Ronald Reagan or a George W. Bush, it is reviled. When it is spotted anywhere near the Clinton traveling circus or a Hollywood artiste, it is enthused over.
But back to this splendid tennis player, Sharapova -- she won a tremendous match. Serena Williams is a great athlete. Through much of their match Williams might have reversed the tide and won. Martin Gilbert and my wife, who also watched with us, know the sport well -- and their commentary was as informative for me as that of John McEnroe, who did some of the very intelligent television commentary provided by the BBC.
But Sharapova would not be denied. She is disciplined and shrewd, and has a serve that is nuclear -- notwithstanding being feminine to the utmost. She will heighten interest in women's tennis for years to come. Women's tennis, incidentally, is one those rare women's athletic events that is as interesting as men's sports.
Yet danger prowls the horizon. Our cisatlantic talking heads are more interested in encouraging triviality from this 17-year-old than athletic achievement. They see her as a celebrity rather than as a great athlete. Celebrity is the vast bug pit into which all manner of notable people are now heaved by media intent on celebrating nothing more intellectually or physically challenging than notoriety. Thus now, if the talking heads have their way, a promising champion will be seated on stage next to a rap singer or an underwear model or Monica Lewinsky. For that matter, Sharapova may find herself appearing on the David Letterman show seated next to the memoirist, Bill Clinton, though I would think the pretty teenager's father would put the kibosh to that sort of venue.