Ser­ena de­serves seed­ing re­spect af­ter preg­nant pause to ca­reer

Yorkshire Post - Sports Monday - - SPORT - Nick Westby ■ Email: nick.westby@ypn.co.uk ■ Twit­ter: @NWest­byYPS­port

TWELVE months ago, world ten­nis faced a ques­tion of its mo­rals and ethics in how it dealt with the rein­te­gra­tion of Maria Shara­pova.

The Rus­sian star is one of women’s ten­nis’s most mar­ketable stars and her 15-month ab­sence from the game due to a drugs ban had harmed the sport’s ap­peal.

Banned for tak­ing mel­do­nium – a med­i­ca­tion she had been tak­ing for 10 years within the rules which was then re­clas­si­fied as an il­le­gal sub­stance – the for­mer world No 1’s re­turn po­larised opin­ion within the locker room.

It also had tour­na­ment or­gan­is­ers scram­bling for the rule books and their own codes of ethics.

The grand slam events in par­tic­u­lar were the sharpest in focus and it was the French Open that came first, tak­ing a hard­line stance against its for­mer cham­pion in not pre­sent­ing her with a wild-card into the tour­na­ment.

When Wim­ble­don came around, and just as the blaz­ers at SW19 were start­ing to get a lit­tle un­com­fort­able, Shara­pova took the de­ci­sion out of their hands by say­ing she would refuse a wild­card.

The US Open of­fered Shara­pova a life­line through its ‘for­mer cham­pi­ons’ clause and gave her a wild-card en­try which she took all the way to the fourth round at Flush­ing Mead­ows.

One year on and women’s ten­nis faces yet an­other test of its mo­rals, one that the hard­line French Open has al­ready failed, and one which Wim­ble­don must con­sider in the com­ing weeks.

The re­turn of Ser­ena Wil­liams is not as con­tro­ver­sial as that of Shara­pova’s but it does chal­lenge or­gan­is­ers’ sym­pa­thy and hu­man­ity.

Be­cause the 23-time grand slam cham­pion is back on the scene af­ter giv­ing birth to her first child last Septem­ber.

Due to the in­ac­tiv­ity dur­ing her ma­ter­nity leave, Wil­liams has dropped from the No 1 rank­ing in the world she held at the time of the start of her ab­sence, to No 454, a fall not helped by an in­dif­fer­ent re­turn on the hard courts of North Amer­ica since March.

Whether she gets a seed­ing in tour­na­ment draws is de­pen­dent on the in­di­vid­ual slams and the French Open last week made the de­ci­sion that a for­mer three-time cham­pion, and quite eas­ily the best player of this gen­er­a­tion, did not de­serve a seed­ing.

They have gone down the route of stay­ing true to the world rank­ings, mean­ing Wil­liams be­gins her French Open cam­paign to­mor­row against Kristyna Pliskova and could face long-time ri­val Shara­pova or sixth seed Karolina Pliskova, the for­mer world No 1 and sis­ter of Kristyna, in the fourth round. .

Wil­liams is the type of player no-one wants to meet in n the early rounds but is in ef­fec be­ing pun­ished for tak­ing time out for hav­ing a baby.

In a sport that has done more than most to nar­row the gen­der gap by introducing g equal prize money, it smacks of sex­ism.

A man could never be dealt t with so se­verely.

Crit­ics might ar­gue that a seed­ing rarely mat­ters and that if Wil­liams is good enough, she will go deep in the tour­na­ment no mat­ter when she plays cer­tain other top play­ers.

But there is a ques­tion of re­spect here, as well as hu­man­ity.

It is one the Wim­ble­don or­gan­is­ers will face in the not too dis­tant fu­ture. On June 26, six days be­fore the tour­na­ment starts, they must name their seeds.

On the men’s side they are duty-bound to at­tribute seed­ings in obeyance to the ATP rank­ings, mean­ing even Andy Mur­ray, if he is fit to re­turn, and just two years af­ter he won the tour­na­ment for a sec­ond time, will not have a seed­ing.

But the women’s side is a lit­tle more am­bigu­ous and does not ad­here as strictly to the rank­ings.

The WTA is con­sid­er­ing a rule change to add pro­tected seed­ings for highly-ranked play­ers re­turn­ing from ma­ter­nity leave, as Wil­liams is, but the ear­li­est that could come in is 2019.

Sev­eral of Wil­liams’ peers have come out in sup­port of her, even long-time neme­sis Shara­pova.

“I would like to see that [rule] change,” said Shara­pova. “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.” Wim­ble­don of­fi­cials have al lready hinted that they will gi ive Wil­liams a seed­ing be ecause they have clar­i­fied t hat they can do so via the WTA.

Af­ter the French Op pen, so im­pres­sive in its s stance over Shara­pova la st year, toed the line to wide­spread w con­dem­na­tion ov ver Wil­liams, the Lawn Te en­nis As­so­ci­a­tion must pu ut com­mon sense and co om­pas­sion above all else an nd give its seven-time ch ham­pion a seed­ing.

Ser­ena Wil­liams is one of the e great­est fe­male ten­nis pla ay­ers of all time and one of the e most recog­nis­able faces in sport, man or woman.

To dis­re­spect her like this, for r hav­ing a baby, is a smack in t the face for those that fight for r equal­ity in sport.

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