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French Open declines to give Serena Williams a seeding after maternity leave

Serena Williams competes at the Miami Open in March. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
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Serena Williams nearly died while giving birth to her first child last year, and she subsequently has experienced difficulties returning to the WTA Tour following a 14-month layoff. On Monday, she learned that her path to a French Open title will be harder than it could have been, if French Open organizers chose to give her a seeding.

Instead, Williams will go unseeded at Roland Garros, where she is preparing to compete at her first major event since winning the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant. That leaves the 23-time Grand Slam singles winner, who was ranked No. 1 in the world at the time she went on maternity leave, in danger of having to square off with a top player in the early rounds — and those players are facing the same unpleasant possibility.

French Open officials could have opted to seed Williams, and not necessarily at No. 1, but they announced Monday that they would follow convention and give players seedings based on the current WTA rankings. As a result of her absence, Williams has dropped to 453rd, and she was only able to play in Paris because the WTA does have a “Special Ranking Rule” allowing players who were on maternity leave or had lengthy injury recoveries to use their previous rankings to enter up to eight tournaments within a year of their returns.

That rule does not apply to seedings, but the WTA said Monday it would reconsider that for its 2019 season. “Historically, WTA players have not been supportive of the use of special rankings for seeding purposes,” the tour said in a statement to the Associated Press, adding, “We remain committed to evolving with the needs of our players and are very supportive of those players returning from maternity leave to the tour.”

Some players may have not been supportive in the past of such a change to the rule, but more recently, a few prominent competitors have offered differing thoughts. Maria Sharapova, a longtime rival of Williams, said last week, “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.”

Sharapova added that protecting seedings “would be a nice change” to the rule and said, “Tennis is such a selfish sport, but I think when there’s a child in your life you lose a little bit of that, because there’s something that’s so much more important.”

“It’s normal to give birth. It’s normal to have protected ranking. … It’s more than tennis,” said Simona Halep, the WTA’s top-ranked player. “So the people will decide what seed she will get. But in my opinion it’s good to protect the ranking when someone is giving birth.”

“If you’re like finished or you stopped because you’re going to have a child and you will be in top eight, I think you should have this kind of thing, to have protected seeding,” fourth-ranked Elina Svitolina said of Williams. “She was No. 1 so she deserves seeding.”

The 36-year-old Williams was unseeded at the two events she played in this year, and after winning two matches at Indian Wells in March before losing to her sister Venus, she lost her first match in straight sets at the Miami Open later in the month to 22nd-seeded Naomi Osaka, who had won the Indian Wells event. James Blake, a former ATP Tour player who is the director of the Miami Open, said at the time that a player such as Williams deserved to have been “protected” by the WTA.

“It’s not as if she left because of injury and lost her passion for the game,” Blake said. “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.”

Williams subsequently dropped out of clay-court tournaments in Madrid and Rome, which traditionally serve as key tuneups for the French Open, and her coach said she “clearly came back too early.” Williams “was not ready yet but needed to feel the competition, so she decided to play even though she was far from being at 100 percent,” said Patrick Mouratoglou.

“After her pregnancy, Serena had to rebuild her body,” Mouratoglou added. ” … The time she lost after the delivery, with all the medical issues she had to go through, was missing.”

In February, Williams provided details of her harrowing experience of giving birth in September to her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., who was delivered by emergency Caesarean section when Williams’s heart rate dropped to dangerously low levels during contractions. Having suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2011, she recognized similar symptoms the next day and alerted doctors at her hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla.

A CT scan revealed blood clots in her lungs, and subsequent coughing fits ruptured the stitching from her C-section, causing hemorrhaging that was aggravated by the blood thinners she was taking. Williams was eventually able to make a recovery, but not before spending her fist six weeks of motherhood confined to a bed in her home.

A climb back up the WTA rankings should make for a less trying ordeal, but Williams apparently has quite an ascent to make before she again gets the benefit of a seeding. Regardless of the obstacles, she’ll be going for a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title at the French Open, which starts Sunday after the draw is announced Thursday.

Williams may not be getting treated like a top player by tournament organizers, but as she wryly noted Monday on Twitter, other tennis-related officials still seem to be recognizing her elite status. Williams tweeted that, for the second time in a week, she was being asked to produce a sample for an anti-doping test.

“Proud to participate to keep the sport clean,” she said. “Even if they do test me at my current ranking of 454 in the world.”

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