WASHINGTON — 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, Miss 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 Miss Sharapova would not be denied. She is disciplined, 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 Miss 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.
The Boy President is the perfect president for the media’s bug pit. A celebrity need not have achieved anything admirable. He or she merely needs to have attracted the curious in large numbers. He could have broken the law and been a celebrity. He could have written a dreadful memoir full of errors and lies and become a celebrity. He could have made a dreadful hash of his job and become a celebrity. You get my drift. Clinton did all of the above, and he is celebrated beyond any other living president. Yet in his life all he has really achieved is enormous media attention, nothing more and nothing genuine.
In sport Miss Sharapova has achieved something genuine. She has won a demanding championship that can never be taken from her. The list of Wimbledon champions goes back into the nineteenth century, where you will have to go to find the youngest Wimbledon women’s champion, Miss Lottie Dod, who won it at 15 in 1887. One hundred ten years later the only other woman to win Wimbledon while younger than Miss Sharapova is Miss Martina Hingis, who was 16 in 1997. One of the reasons sport is worth following is that it is genuine. It is not easy to fake a championship.
The historian Gilbert knows about lives that are genuine, which might explain why he took such delight in the match between Sharapova and Williams. Great historians apply standards to the lives they study and to their own work. What are missing from the bug pit of celebrity are standards. Whether one has achieved something admirable or cheap, honorable or despicable, is not taken into account by the talking heads. Now they want to drag Sharapova into the bug pit of celebrity. They want to know about the parties she goes to and the gaudy endorsements she has signed on for. If she abandons herself to that trashy world, she will get all the media appearances under the sun. She will also lose her place in the hierarchy of champions.