Is Serena Making Tennis More Mom-Friendly?
Only three women have won a Grand Slam title after giving birth. At this year’s US Open, there may be a fourth.
Serena Williams has bent women’s tennis to her will since she first arrived on the pro circuit in 1997. The winner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, she’s impacted everything from the style of play to prize money to perceptions about what a champion looks like. Now, less than a year after the September 2017 birth of her daughter, Olympia, she’s changing the game’s approach to maternity leave, and nowhere more forcefully than at the upcoming U.S. Open, which has agreed to seed Williams independent of her ranking. “We realize we’re a sport, but people pay attention to tennis and if we can help open eyes and do the right thing we do it,” says United States Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier. “In this case it was easy to do.”
When Williams, 36, announced she was stepping away from the game to have a child in April of 2017 she was ranked No. 1 in the world. When she returned in May of 2018 she was unranked. That’s because the Women’s Tennis Association ranks based on points earned through tournament results on a rolling, 52-week basis. A player who’s out not only fails to accumulate more points, but she loses points as prior finishes fall out of the 52-week window. The impact is real: Spots in tournaments are allotted to players based on their ranking, and the top-32 ranked players in most events are seeded and spread throughout the field so they have an easier path to the final rounds. This makes sense because fans, sponsors and TV executives want to see the best players face off in the later stages of tournaments.
What, though, should tournaments do when one of the top players — never mind one of the greatest ever — turns up after a year off? The WTA’s maternity leave policy, enacted in 2017, freezes a player’s ranking at the time she departs. Once she returns, she can then use that “special ranking” to enter eight events over the following 12 months. She can also receive “wild card” exemptions into tournaments she’s previously won. This grace period is meant to allow a player the opportunity to reclaim her previous status on her own timeline. The problem is that the special ranking is not used for seeding, so returning players face a tougher draw that pits them against better players in earlier rounds. The process to the average office worker can seem unfair: A partner in a law firm doesn’t return from maternity leave to find that she’s gone from the front of the line for lucrative, high-profile cases to working her way back up by handling petty crime and speeding tickets.
“We are open to making changes in the rule based on the input received from our players,” Steve Simon, the WTA’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement, although he also pointed out the difficulty making such alterations. “Putting it plainly, seeding a returning player means another player loses her place. The members have differing opinions about this rule. We need to find a standard they can all agree with.” Of course, the WTA has more than 2,500 members from nearly 100 countries, many with different needs and priorities, so consensus is difficult to achieve.
Current No. 1 Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka, who was No. 6 in the world before taking leave to have her son, Leo, in 2016, want to see players resume their seeding position upon returning. After an unseeded Williams lost in the first round of the Miami Open, tournament director James Blake said of the leave policy, “It’s a kind of punishment, which is tough.”
And while retaliation and hindered opportunity are real problems for women returning to work after starting a family, the WTA and many players contend that professional sports are different. “I think it’s complex because it’s not your normal work environment,” Simon said to The New York Times. “It is competition. You’re dealing with independent contractors, and by the nature of competition you are not guaranteed anything.” To his point, countless other players have returned from maternity leave without complaint or accommodation, including Azarenka, currently ranked No. 108, and Kim Clijsters, who worked her way back to a No. 1 ranking without the benefit of seeding after the birth of her daughter in 2007.
“For entertainment reasons, it's very important to have Serena Williams in the draw, but I don't think it's important to have her in the seeding positions at the moment,” Mandy Minella, 32, of Luxembourg, said at the French Open. In 2017, Minella played into the fourth month of her pregnancy and left as the 66th-ranked player. She returned 99 days after the birth of her daughter, Emma, as No. 104. Adds Minella, “[Serena's] so good that she will get back to the top, so the rule should stay as it is. If seeded now, she would take away the spot of another girl who had fought all year to have a seeding.”
Whatever the WTA decides for the 50 tournaments it controls will have no impact at the four Grand Slams, which set their own policy and are free to rule by fiat. Williams was disappointed when the French Open offered her no seeding in late May, where after winning her first three matches she withdrew, citing an injury.
Wimbledon, which often strays from the WTA rankings in seeding because of the unique demands of playing on grass, slotted Williams at 25th. That pushed 32nd-ranked Dominika Cibulková of Slovakia, a two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist, out of a seeding. “I think it's just not fair," Cibulková told the BBC, before advancing again to the quarterfinals. Williams made it to the final match, and after losing to Angela Kerber of Germany, she said, “To all the moms out there, I was playing for you today, and I tried.”
Even in defeat, Williams rose to 28th in the rankings, which will put her back in the seeds. It’s possible she could drop again before the U.S Open, but that shouldn’t be a concern. The United States Tennis Association has made no promises about where Williams will be seeded, but a spokesman vowed that “pregnancy will not be penalized. If Serena Williams enters the 2018 U.S. Open, the USTA will recognize her accomplishments, recognize her return to the workplace and will seed her, regardless of what her ranking is.” A few days before the U.S. Open, Williams was seated No. 17, nine spots ahead of where she was most recently ranked.
The fourth Grand Slam, the Australian Open, doesn’t come around until next January, by which point questions about Williams’s seeding should be moot. If some other top player arrives in Melbourne post-pregnancy without a seeding, no one is quite sure what will happen, because when it comes to maternity leave and seeds, the tournament’s organizers have remained, appropriately, mum.
Jim Gorant is a contributing editor at Sports Illustrated and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestseller The Lost Dogs.
Moms Competing in the Open
Only three women have won a Grand Slam singles titles after childbirth: Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong Cawley in the 1970s, and Kim Clijsters, who did it three times starting in 2009. Below are the moms who will join Serena Williams in attempting to become the fourth at this year’s U.S. Open, starting on Aug. 27.
Player: Victoria Azarenka, 29
Current Rank: 80
Child: Leo, 20 months
Azarenka's comeback has been slowed by a custody battle with her former boyfriend, which she won last January.
Player: Kateryna Bondarenko, 32
Current Rank: 86
Child: Karin, 5
Bondarenko planned to retire after pregnancy but got so bored after eight months at home she made a comeback.
Player: Tatjana Maria, 31
Current Rank: 67
Child: Charlotte, 4
Maria spent her maternity leave changing from two-handed to single-hand backhand on her backyard court.
Player: Evgeniya Rodina, 29
Current Rank: 81
Child: Anna, 5
Anna was back home in Moscow when Rodina lost to Williams at Wimbledon in a rare mom vs. mom match.
Player: Vera Zvonareva, 33
Current Rank: 134
Child: Evelyn, 2
Zvonareva didn’t worry about motherhood when she joined the tour at 17 because she thought she’d retire by 27.