Tennis Needs Serena Williams Back. But does She Need to Be Seeded?

As ever, Serena Williams is a conversation starter.She has generated debate inside and outside of tennis since she took her first swings on the pro tour at age 14 at a time when the WTA had banned 14-year-olds from its main circuit.

Now that she has become one of her sport’s greatest champions and a new mother, Williams, 36, continues to set the agenda.

Despite her Open-era record of 23 major singles titles, she is unseeded at the French Open, where she is scheduled to play Kristyna Pliskova on Tuesday in her first match at a Grand Slam tournament in 16 months. Williams also was unseeded at the BNP Paribas Open and Miami Open, the only other tournaments she has played in this start-and-stop comeback in 2018 in which her singles record is 2-2.

When other leading players returned from maternity leave, including Kim Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka, there was no uproar when they were not among the seeds. But Williams is not just any leading player, and the women’s tour, in the midst of an extensive review of its policies, is now being pressured to change its rules.

Change seems all but certain. It seems likely that players coming back from pregnancy in the future will be able to return with a protected ranking after a longer period than the current two years, and they may be allowed to use that special ranking in more tournaments than the current eight.

But change on the seeding issue is far from certain. The issue is thornier than it might first appear, and reaching consensus among the players is hardly straightforward.

“It is a complex one, and I think it’s complex because it’s not your normal work environment,” said Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, in a telephone interview on Monday. “It is competition. You’re dealing with independent contractors, and by the nature of competition you are not guaranteed anything. But yet there is a feeling you should have some rights, and I think our rules do address a lot of that. It really is just one element of the rule, to be honest, which is in discussion. That’s the use of the special ranking for seeding.”

Williams, like all WTA players returning from maternity leave, has a protected ranking that she can use to enter eight tournaments in a 12-month period. Williams was No. 1 before she took her break from the game in February 2017.

She and some of her leading rivals, including the current No. 1 Simona Halep, have argued that there should also be protected seedings, both to avoid unbalanced draws and to not dissuade players from having children earlier in their careers.

That is not yet certain, but the WTA Tour once had this discretion, with its chief executive authorized to use a special ranking for seeding purposes at its own events. Lindsay Davenport was seeded this way at several tournaments in 2002, as were Serena Williams and Venus Williams in 2004 before the rule was changed after pushback from other players.

But Davenport and the Williamses were returning from injury, not pregnancy, in those years. The feeling now is that the injury and pregnancy should be treated differently in the WTA rule book. If there is change, it is likely to have little impact on Williams. Simon said if the rule was revised, it would not be put in place until the start of the 2019 season.

He and Azarenka defended the integrity of the process on Monday.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, you know, they are not seeded, it’s a terrible, bad rule,’” said Azarenka, who is ranked 84th and has a 11-6 record since returning to tour last June. “But there are a lot of things that are going into this rule and into the thought process. So I would like to just, for the record, say that please give us time and we will, as a women’s association, we will make sure that we have the best for women players and for our sport.”

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