The decision by French Open organisers not to grant Serena Williams a seeding on her long-awaited Grand Slam return has prompted renewed focus on the sport’s policy towards female players and parenthood.
“French Open is punishing Serena Williams for having a baby” read a USA Today headline, arguing an expection for the 23-time major winner should be made for Thursday’s draw.
At 36, the American is looking to regain her top form following the birth of her daughter last September. After sitting out of competition for over a year, she no longer had a ranking upon her return to the WTA circuit in March.
She has played just four matches this season across appearances at Indian Wells and Miami. But her results, far from convincing, have only been good enough to climb to 449th in the world rankings.
With a ranking so low, no player would typically even be able to take part in qualifying for the main draw. That is unless benefiting from a wildcard or using a protected ranking, which has at least allowed Williams direct entrance into the field.
It is a system that lets a player retain, for a transitional period, a former ranking upon return from a long absence — between six months and two years — due to injury, illness or pregnancy.
But it does not guarantee them a seeding, leaving Serena vulnerable to an encounter with leading title contenders as early as the first round.
At Miami, Williams ran into Indian Wells champion Naomi Osaka in her opening match and was easily beaten.
‘Grace period’ needed
“She has won this title so many times (eight) that she needs protection,” Miami tournament director James Blake said after the WTA refused to alter its rules despite conceding that they would be “further reviewed” going forward.
“It’s not as if she left because of injury and lost her passion for the game,” Blake said. “She had a kid, which we should all be celebrating, so when she comes back there should be a grace period where she can still be seeded.”
Maria Sharapova also spoke up in support of her longtime rival last week.
“It’s a tough call, I would like to see that change,” Sharapova said. “I think that would be nice.”
At Wimbledon, which runs from July 2-15, the All England Club could elect to seed Serena using its unique system that favours grass-court specialists, given she is a seven-time champion.
But at Roland Garros, an event she has won three times, organisers are not ready to take such a step with the French Tennis Federation (FFT) reaffirming the seedings will reflect the latest WTA rankings.
Tournament organisers have been equally unmoved in the past when faced with similar situations.
Victoria Azarenka was unseeded at last year’s Wimbledon in her first Grand Slam since giving birth in late 2016, while Kim Clijsters was in a similar position at the 2009 US Open.
However, that didn’t stop Clijsters, who needed a wildcard just to compete in New York, from going on to lift the second of four career Grand Slam titles.