Is tennis doing enough to support women who return to competition after giving birth? A former player who is the director of the Miami Open thinks the sport could do more, calling seeding rules in the women’s sport a “kind of punishment.”
James Blake, the former player who is tournament director of the Miami Open, cited the high-profile case of Serena Williams as a prime example. Williams, an all-time great athlete, enters the tournament unseeded after having 13 months off following the birth of her first child, daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian. Williams will face Naomi Osaka — ranking No. 22 in the world and coming off her first title at Indian Wells earlier this month — in a first-round match Wednesday.
“For someone who goes on maternity break, they should be protected. These kind of things shouldn’t happen,” Blake told AFP. “She has won this title so many times that she needs protection. It’s not as if she left because of injury and lost her passion for the game. She had a kid, which we should all be celebrating, so when she comes back there should be a grace period where she can still be seeded.
“It’s a kind of punishment, which is tough. I hope they revisit those talks although it will be too late for her unless she decides to have another child.”
Ranked 491st in the world, Williams can use a protected world standing to enter as many as eight tournaments, which would include Grand Slam events, during a 12-month period, allowing her to avoid qualifying. That does not apply to seedings, though. After the birth of her son, for instance, Victoria Azarenka returned to tennis last June, playing as a wild card in the Mallorca Open and using her protected ranking to play in Wimbledon.
“Our current rule does not allow a player who uses her Special Ranking for entry into a tournament to be seeded, whether absent for injury/illness or for pregnancy. This past year, the WTA made adjustments in order to align a player who is out for pregnancy with a player who is out for a long-term injury. This provides for a player to return with a protected ranking but does not allow for a player to be seeded based upon the special ranking which was put in place,” WTA CEO Steve Simon told the New York Times. “When reviewing these rules, the players have traditionally expressed they do not feel that a player coming back from a long-term layoff, for any reason, should be allowed to be seeded.”
Simon said further review is likely and added, “We are very supportive of those players returning from pregnancy to the Tour.”
Simona Halep, who is ranked No. 1 in the world, told reporters last week that Williams, winner of 23 Grand Slams, called for more protected rankings.
“To give birth is the best thing in the world. It’s more than a sport,” she told reporters last week at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. “I think she should have been actually number one seed in this tournament because she left as number one in the world.”
Darren Cahill, Halep’s coach, touched off a Twitter conversation on the topic last week, writing: “This match should not be happening in a 3rd round. Serena (and all mothers) should be protected by the WTA and allowed to use their protected ranking for seeding, if applicable. Women should not be penalized for giving birth by starting from zero.”
Pam Shriver echoed that, replying: “Women should not be penalized for anything gender related. Break the law, we can be penalized but work related inequities need to stop.”
Cahill called for the WTA to “look after players” and replied to Shriver: “It’s basically the same rule that applies to the men when they get injured and are out for 12+ months so I don’t think there’s a gender bias. But I think falling pregnant and having a baby falls into a completely different category and the WTA rule should be looked at.”
In January, Williams pulled out of the Australian Open, saying she just wasn’t ready after giving birth in early September.
“Although I am super close, I’m not where I want to be,” she said in a statement. “My coach and team always said ‘only go to tournaments when you are prepared to go all the way.’ I can compete — but I don’t want to just compete, I want to do far better than that and to do so, I will need a little more time.”
She lost, 6-3, 6-4, to her sister, Venus, at Indian Wells last week in the third match of her comeback. Afterward, she said her “room for improvement is incredible.”
“For me, it was a good match. It was good to play and try to get in the rhythm and get into the swing again,” she said. “I’m getting there. It’s not exactly where I want to be, but I’ll get there eventually. I have a lot to improve on. It’s good that I don’t have to say that this is the best tennis I have ever played and I lost. My room for improvement is incredible. I just have a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to the journey.”
Williams had an especially difficult time after giving birth in an emergency C-section, with her past issues with blood clots resurfacing because having surgery meant she was not taking her usual anticoagulant.
“I almost died after giving birth to my daughter, Olympia,” she wrote for CNN.
“She walked out of the hospital room so her mother wouldn’t worry and told the nearest nurse, between gasps, that she needed a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner) right away,” Rob Haskell wrote in Vogue. “The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused. But Serena insisted, and soon enough a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. ‘I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,’ she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later she was on the drip. ‘I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!’”
Williams added that she was bedridden for six weeks and required another procedure when her C-section incision ruptured because of coughing fits. Doctors discovered a hematoma in her abdomen and she later had another procedure to prevent future clots in her lungs.
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