Serena Williams, who had not played since March, returned to both tennis and Grand Slam competition Tuesday, topping Kristyna Pliskova 7-6 (7-4), 6-4 in the French Open’s first round. The win improved Williams to 3-2 in tour-level matches this year and ended her lengthy absence from Grand Slam competition related to the birth of her daughter in September.
Williams hadn’t competed in a Grand Slam event since winning the 2017 Australian Open about eight weeks into her pregnancy with daughter Olympia. She had a pulmonary embolism and subsequent hematoma after giving birth and was bedridden for about six weeks. She had played only intermittently this season.
The best player in the history of women’s tennis — and one of the greatest athletes ever — Williams stepped onto the Roland Garros court this month unseeded and ranked 451st in the world. (Pliskova was ranked 70th.)
She returned with a fashion statement, rocking a bold, black Nike catsuit that swept social media.
The outfit, she said after the match, paid homage to “all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and had to come back and try to be fierce, in the middle of everything. That’s what this represents. It’s exciting. And you can’t beat a catsuit, right?”
Attire aside, the meeting with Pliskova kicked off yet another debate about maternity leave on the women’s tour, with the key question concerning how to seed top-ranked players who return after a lengthy absence.
“It is a complex one, and I think it’s complex because it’s not your normal work environment,” Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association Tour, told the New York Times. “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 was the world’s No. 1 player when she took her maternity break in February 2017. WTA players who return from maternity leave or recover from injury have a protected or “special” ranking that can be used to gain entry — but not seeding — into eight tournaments over 12 months. Without being seeded, players could face highly ranked opponents much earlier in tournaments, and Williams therefore supports protected seedings.
“You shouldn’t have to stop altogether just because you want to have a baby young,” Williams, who will turn 37 in September, told the Times. “You don’t want to be my age having your first baby, you know what I mean? So I think as a women you should have that choice to get pregnant and have a baby and still be able to have a career, just like in any other job.”
Eager to return to the sport, Williams may have jumped the gun earlier this spring.
“Serena clearly came back too early,” her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said recently. “She 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. It was a good experience as she realized all the work that needed to be done in order for her to be really ready.”
For now, Williams is starting over, like other women on the tour who have returned after giving birth. It seems unfair to many observers, including Ivanka Trump, who tweeted last week: “No person should even be penalized professionally for having a child!”
But not everyone on the women’s tour is ready to change the rule. “We want to have Serena Williams,” Mandy Minella told the Times. Minella, 32, made the main draw of the French Open after giving birth last October. “We want to see her. She’s important for tennis, and she can be in any tournament. I think if she’s fit enough, she will come back to where she belongs, right? But she has to prove herself again after practicing. In sport, you have to prove yourself over and over again.”
Over the last year, the WTA has changed the rule so that absences for maternity leave are treated the same as those for injury and illness, but women are not united on changing it further.
“Historically, WTA players have not been supportive of the use of special rankings for seeding purposes,” the WTA said in a statement to the Associated Press last week. “The rule is currently under further review as part of our 2019 rules process. 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.”
Maria Sharapova is among those calling for change, which isn’t likely to arrive anytime soon.
“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,” she said, via the AP. “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. So, yeah, I definitely think that would be a nice change.”
Williams lost in the 2016 French Open final to Garbine Muguruza. She won her third French Open in 2015.
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