With Serena Williams' seeding snub at this year's French Open, players have called on the governing body to introduce special dispensation for those returning from maternity leave.

By Joe McDonough

Posted on May 22, 2018

Serena Williams has won the French Open three times, and a total of 23 grand slam singles titles. Simply put, she is one of the greatest tennis players of all time.

She was even ranked at number one in the world prior to the birth of her daughter last September, having won the 2017 Australian Open while she was pregnant.

But since taking a maternity hiatus from the sport she has dominated for the best part of two decades, she has tumbled down the WTA Tour rankings to number 453.

Rankings are everything in tennis. They dictate the seedings in the four majors — the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open — allowing the top players to avoid each other until the latter stages of the knock-out tournaments.

The 36-year-old is exempt to play at Roland Garros because of the WTA’s ‘Special Ranking Rule’, however there is no such protection policy for a player’s seeding.

It is up to the tournament organiser, in this case the French Tennis Federation (FTF), to use its discretion. And the FTF has decided against granting the 2002, 2013 and 2105 French Open champion special dispensation.

“This year again, tournament officials will establish the list and ranking of the women’s seeds based on the WTA ranking,” the FTF said defiantly in a statement.

“Consequently, [the seeds] will reflect this week’s world ranking.”

Having a floater of the calibre of Williams in the main draw of the French Open is a nightmare for her opponents, as any of them could be pitted against her in the early rounds.

But to many of the elite players in the women’s game, introducing a protected seeding rule is about “more than tennis”, it’s a show of support for motherhood.

At the Italian Open last week, Maria Sharapova said she would like to see players in Williams’ situation retain their high seedings.

“I would like to see that [rule] change,” she said.

“It’s such an incredible effort for a woman to come back from physically, emotionally.

“There’s just another whole dimension to the travel, to the experiences, to the emotions to the physicality of every single day.

“Tennis is such a selfish sport but I think when there’s a child in your life you lose a little bit of that, because there’s something that’s so much more important… I definitely think that would be a nice change.”

World number four Elina Svitolina, who won the Italian Open, was also supportive of seeding Williams.

“If you’re like finished or you stopped because you’re going to have a child and you will be in top eight, I think you should have this kind of thing, to have protected seeding,” she told reporters.

“She was number one so she deserves seeding.”

The WTA has seen a shift in players’ attitudes, and says it is currently considering the introduction of a special seeding rule.

“Historically, WTA players have not been supportive of the use of special rankings for seeding purposes,” the WTA said in its statement.

“The rule is currently under further review as part of our 2019 rules process. We remain committed to evolving with the needs of our players and are very supportive of those players returning from maternity leave to the tour.”

Lack of support from the governing body

While it’s not the case for Williams, life on tour is a struggle for those who aren’t regularly collecting big novelty cheques and being courted by the likes of Nike for multimillion dollar sponsorships.

Having to then take a year off for maternity is therefore crippling without adequate support.

And late last year, Forbes contributor Filip Bondy explained the WTA offered zero in the way of financial help for professional tennis players on maternity leave.

The WTA said players are “independent contractors and not employees of the WTA”. Therefore, they do not qualify for paid maternity leave.

“Nevertheless, WTA does provide players the option to purchase worldwide medical, dental and vision insurance through a preferred provider organisation, which includes coverage of all medical expenses during pregnancy,” the WTA spokesperson added.

Bondy offered two simple steps that would surely be well received by the players.

  • “When a player declares her pregnancy, ranking points should be frozen for up to one year and should determine seeding in WTA tournaments upon her return. At that juncture, ranking points can be gained and subtracted, by tournament, based on new results and those results in the year preceding a declaration of pregnancy. The 12 months of pregnancy and infant care would basically be erased from the computer, as if they never happened.”

  • “The WTA should also set aside a pool of money for “maternity scholarships,” based on need, to help transition pregnant players. This pool could be created, in part, with a ‘tax’ on top prize money winnings, as agreed to by the women themselves, and would in effect represent a paid maternity leave.”

    The French Open starts on Sunday, with Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep the favourites.