Serena deserves seeding respect after pregnant pause to career
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.