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U.S. Open to change seeding process in wake of Serena Williams’s pregnancy leave

Serena Williams celebrates winning a third-round match at the French Open earlier this month. (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)
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The U.S. Open will not penalize players whose rankings have tumbled because of pregnancy-related breaks from the game in awarding seeds for its women’s field, starting with this year’s tournament. But it’s unclear how the U.S. Tennis Association will strike a fair balance between the interests of returning mothers whose rankings have slid and active players who have surged ahead of them in the interim.

The decision in principle follows criticism leveled at French Open officials in May for not seeding Serena Williams, a three-time champion of the tournament, in her return to competition after giving birth to a daughter in September.

During Williams’s 13-month hiatus from the game, her ranking slid from No. 1 in the world to No. 454. While she was granted a place in the French Open’s 128-player women’s field, the fact that she didn’t receive one of the tournament’s 32 seeds meant she was at risk of facing one of the top players in the world in her first-round match. Williams advanced to the French Open’s fourth round, nonetheless, but was forced to withdraw hours before facing former No. 1 Maria Sharapova because of an injured pectoral muscle.

Katrina Adams, president and chief executive of the USTA, confirmed that the tournament would factor in absences for pregnancy and childbirth in issuing its seeds starting with the upcoming tournament, which gets underway Aug. 27.

“We have top players who exemplify womanhood, becoming mothers, and are not being allowed to return following their pregnancy with a record that reflects that — Victoria Azarenka last year, and Serena now doing the same thing,” Adams said Saturday in a telephone interview.

Adams noted that in the business world, when the CEO of a company leaves to have a baby, she doesn’t start at the bottom when she returns to work.

“With Serena, you’re looking at one of arguably the greatest players of all time. There’s a level of respect there,” Adams said. “But it’s not about Serena; it’s about the accomplishments of a Serena — a number one player, with 23 Grand Slams.

Adams explained that the precise formula had not been worked out, explaining: “We have no idea what, when or how, but we definitely know we’ll seed her.”

The USTA’s decision was first reported by the New York Times.

The issue of how tennis treats players returning from childbirth has emerged as a source of debate among tournament officials and competitors, particularly in light of the French Open’s decision regarding Williams, 36, who has dominated the game for the past 15 years. While many tennis followers believe women shouldn’t be penalized for missing time because of pregnancy, the issue of how to do so without giving them preference over active players who deserve a seed commensurate with their current ranking is tricky. How do tournaments strike a fair balance?

In a telephone interview earlier this week, former touring pro Pam Shriver, who works as an analyst for ESPN, predicted the issue will become increasingly commonplace. Not every female player will make the decision to postpone childbirth until after retirement, as did Shriver, former world No. 1 Chris Evert (also a mother of three) and many of their peers in the 1980s and ’90s.

“It’s going to be happening more and more because of the extended lengths of careers,” Shriver said. “There are going to be more moms on tour for the foreseeable future. [Williams] is the most high-profile one.”

Each of the sport’s four majors — Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. Opens — has the prerogative to seed players as it sees fit to ensure a balanced tournament. Typically, the majors follow the most recent world rankings, although Wimbledon traditionally exercises its privilege to depart from that formula and consider players’ past performance on grass.

Wimbledon, which will begin July 2, will announce its seedings Wednesday. Tournament officials have signaled they are likely to award Williams, a seven-time champion of the tournament, one of the 32 seeds despite her ranking of 183rd. Wimbledon has precedence for doing so with several players, Williams among them.

In 2011, tournament officials seeded Williams, the defending champion, seventh despite a ranking of 26th in the world at the time. The slide resulted from a near year-long absence triggered by a freak injury, suffered when she stepped on broken glass and later developed blood clots in her lungs following her 2010 Wimbledon championship.

Women’s Tennis Association rules don’t protect the seeds of players whose rankings have slid because of missed time — whether because of injury, pregnancy or suspension. The organization is expected to reconsider that policy later this year.

Regardless, the four Grand Slams are not beholden to WTA policies in seeding their fields.

Since returning to competition in March, following a Fed Cup appearance, Williams has played seven singles matches on the pro tour, posting a 5-2 record at tournaments in Indian Wells, Miami and the French Open.

Former top-five player James Blake, who is now Miami’s tournament director, said this spring that he believed the WTA current policy for seeding players returning from pregnancy was “a kind of punishment.”

Shriver agrees but believes the solution is tricky. While she said she believes strongly that there should be no protection for players who have missed time because of suspensions (as Sharapova did following a positive test for a banned substance), Shriver sees the issue of pregnancy, which is often regarded the same as an injury in workplace policy, as different.

Going forward, Shriver said she clearly sees the merits of protecting players returning from pregnancy for the purposes of getting a spot in tournaments. But a protected seed in those tournaments, she believes, is a different matter.

“Giving somebody an automatic seed is really something you need to think about. That means you’re assuming that person is playing at the same standard or at the standard that seed warrants. When you give somebody a seed, that means you believe they are worthy, based on their current play, to represent that seeded position.”

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