After surviving a childbirth fraught with grave medical complications, Serena Williams returned to the pro tour eight months later to find that her world ranking had plunged from No. 1 to No. 451.
Moreover, the body-hugging compression suit she debuted at the French Open to guard against life-threatening blood clots got an icy reception, with the president of the French Tennis Federation months afterward describing it as not “respectful” to the game and suggesting it would be banned.
This week, with an eye toward fairness, common sense and the sport’s own self-interest, the Women’s Tennis Association revised its rules regarding players who return to the tour from pregnancy.
The adjustments, designed to make it easier for women to return to competition following a pregnancy as well as modernize the sport’s dress code, came largely in response to the wide-ranging debate that ensued over the additional hurdles that Williams and former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka faced following childbirth.
“These changes,” said WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon in a statement, “are designed to fully support players in their return to competition, while maintaining the highest standards of athletic competition and fairness.”
Under the changes, players who return to the tour can use a special ranking for up to three years following the birth of a child. An additional rules-change extends a slightly more limited accommodation to players who return from an injury that has sidelined them for one year or more. They’ll be able to use a special ranking in 12 tournaments.
Players’ rankings are the key factor in determining their seeding at Grand Slams and major events, which in turn protects top players from facing one another in the early rounds.
The changes drew support from Hall of Fame inductee Martina Navratilova, a former world No. 1 in singles and doubles, who called them “a step in the right direction.”
“For me, it’s about fairness — not just pregnancy but also injury,” Navratilova said in a telephone interview. “If you have a baby or you have a knee surgery, you can be just as good as you were; you just haven’t played for 12 or 18 months. So you better err on the side of fairness and seed these [former ranked] players — and maybe seed them a little higher.”
Williams, 37, gave birth to a daughter, Alexis Olympia, in September 2017, and revealed afterward that it had been a perilous delivery.
Ranked outside the top 400, she was unseeded eight months later at the 2018 French Open — a tournament she had won twice en route to her modern-era record 23 Grand Slam titles.
The following month, Wimbledon granted its six-time champion a modest accommodation, seeding her 25th in an attempt to strike a balance between Williams’ true ability and that of the women who had surpassed her in the rankings during her maternity-related hiatus. She went on to reach the final, giving the U.S. Open more reason to bump her up further. Seeded 17th, she reached the final there as well before losing to Naomi Osaka.
Regarding acceptable attire, women will now be permitted to wear leggings or compression shorts or suits without having to also wear a skirt, dress or shorts over them.
Navratilova called the move overdue.
“The rules hadn’t caught up with the fabrics and, quite frankly, the evolution of athletic wear,” Navartilova said, adding that her only concern about women’s tennis attire was when it didn’t cover enough skin and sexualized the game. “But this is the opposite of that; it’s making it more functional.”
Reached in London, Billie Jean King, a founder of the WTA. cheered the new rules.
“I am pleased to see these rules changes at the WTA Tour to continue to protect our players in their workplace and allow them to play at their highest level,” King wrote. “The seeding of the players and the tournament draws will now be more accurate, which will ultimately benefit the fans. The players can now return to the WTA Tour on their own terms and these new rules provide protections for their health, their family and their career.”
Azarenka, 29, a former world No. 1, gave birth to a son, Leo, in December 2016. Her return to the tour six months later was interrupted by child-custody proceedings. When she was finally free to travel to competitions with her son, she, too, faced an uphill battle with her ranking and seeding.
Azarenka, a member of the WTA’s Player Council, had urged the sport to review its policies.
“I look at it from two perspectives, because the conversation started because of Serena, you know, and all respect to her, if we look at her achievements and where she’s come from, where I come from, it might be a fair choice that we do have a seeding in the tournaments after coming back,” said Azarenka last spring. “But it’s a difficult question because if we do make that rule, it will have to be for everybody.”
Also speaking out for an accommodation was former men’s top-five player James Blake, now a tournament director of the Miami Open, where Williams is a top draw. Blake told the BBC last summer: “The rules should help [Williams] get the benefit of an easier draw and a better path. 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.”