When Serena Williams left women’s tennis last January to have her first child, she did so as the top-ranked player in the world. When she returned to the WTA this March after a 13-month break,Williams didn’t have a ranking at all.
It comes on the heels of a loss to her sister Venus a week before. Her draws in both events were difficult and not made an easier by the WTA, with its rule that deny Serena a seed even though she should still be considered the No. 1 player in the world. That seed is crucial – it helps protect her early in tournaments by avoiding other top-ranked players. Without it, the climb back becomes all the more arduous.
The fact that tennis doesn’t have such a rule is surprising. The sport has prided itself on its efforts toward gender equality since the trailblazing days of Billie Jean King. At Grand Slams and events such as Miami and Indian Wells, women get the same prize money as men, a practice that continues to set the standard in sports. But women in 2018, who accomplished equality of pay decades ago (in the big tournaments, at least), still don’t receive a basic right afforded to workers across the world?
(The WTA says it’s because the players are independent contractors, as if their hands are tied on the matter. It would help matters if tennis had a player’s union, but that’s a whole different topic.)
One gets the feeling that proper maternity leave hasn’t been addressed before because it hasn’t been a major issue before. A woman leaving tennis, having a child, and returning to the sport is rare. There are just four mothers in the current top 100, none of whom are known outside the tennis world or had the star power to bring this injustice to light.
Is there no rule because there’s been so little need for one?
Or is it the other way around? What if mothers playing tennis was rare because the rules make it so difficult? A top-50 tennis player has between five-and-10 years of maximum earning potential. Giving up a year of that and then returning with absolutely no financial guarantee is a major risk. It shouldn’t be.
Williams was at No. 1 and came back like she was a mid-tier player returning from knee surgery. The No. 1 rankings was gone, erased after 12 months of tennis inactivity. New mothers are only given a nominal special ranking (equivalent to their old one) that has no power except to gain them acceptance into the draws of eight tournaments.
The ranking doesn’t allow for se and gives no assurance beyond those eight tournaments. If a new mother doesn’t get enough rankings points to make it into the top 100 during her time with the special ranking, she’s left to play catch up in small, globetrotting events, hoping to win enough to get back to the level where she automatically qualifies for big tournaments.
That’s not as much an issue for Williams. She’ll almost certainly start winning matches and get herself to the point where she won’t have to rely on her special ranking. And even if the rust proves hard to shake, this is Serena Williams. Her fame guarantees her a wild-card entry into any tournament she wants. Other mothers don’t have that luxury.
The seed is crucial to those who can get it, like Williams. Being in a draw without a seed leaves players vulnerable to tough draws that can end tournaments earlier and hinder efforts to accumulate the aforementioned points. It’s an issue that keeps compounding itself. At Wimbledon, for example, a seeded player wouldn’t face another seeded player until the third round, at the earliest. If Williams arrives at the All England Club without a top-32 ranking (or thereabouts), she won’t get a seed and could theoretically face the No. 1 player in the world in the opening round.
That’s a situation equally unfair to both Williams and the seeded player she’d face (though I bet the latter would actually consider it a worse draw). Both deserve the protection that comes with having a number aside your name.
All of that is why rankings points should be frozen from the time a woman leaves the sport until her return from maternity leave. Instead of merely getting into eight tournaments, all players should get a full 12 months under that ranking (with the usual rolling 52-week system) and qualified players should receive the seed they would have had before having a child. Basically, it should be like they never left.
To be fair, none of that would have mattered in Wednesday’s match. Osaka was unseeded despite her new No. 22 ranking (another WTA absurdity) so Williams could have played her just as easily if she’d been seeded No. 1. The lack of seed would have come in to play if Williams had won the match though. Up next on the draw was world No. 4 Elena Svitolina.
Depending on the luck of the draw (or lack thereof), this is problem that will continue for Williams for the rest of the spring and into this summer. She’ll be entering tournaments as if she were a common player instead of the greatest champion the sport has ever seen, all because she chose to have a child. It’s bad for her, opponents, fans, tournament organizers and broadcast partners, let alone the WTA in its quest for equality.
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