Tennis greats and even Serena Williams’ rivals have urged top officials to re-consider policy that will see the American icon enter the upcoming French Open as an unseeded player.
Williams was the top player in the world when she took a break to give birth to her first child, Alexis Olympia, last year, and has plummeted down to 449th in the rankings as a result.
And while Williams is able to enter eight tournaments a year with a protected ranking – a system that allows players sidelined with pregnancy or long-term injuries to use their ranking at the start of their absence – she cannot be seeded in Paris under current regulations.
That means the 23-time grand slam winner could meet World No.1 Simona Halep in the first round at Roland Garros, for example.
“It’s wrong,” Chris Evert, who won 18 grand slams of her own, told ESPN.
“Not just for her but or the other women who could play her in the first round … It’s about protecting the field too.
“It’s not like you decide to take a year off. I mean if you are forced out of the game for a specific reason, whether it be maternity or injury, you need to be protected.
“You don’t have to put her back at No.1 because she left at No.1 but try to figure out some sort of happy medium where it’s fair for all.”
Maria Sharapova, who has a long-running history with Williams, said at last week’s Italian Open she wants to see changes made.
“I would like to see that change. It’s such an incredible effort for a woman to come back from physically, emotionally,” she 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.”
Halep added the issue was about “more than tennis”.
Is this fair?
The New Daily took Williams’ case to a series of experts around Australia and they sided with the 36-year-old.
Professor Paula McDonald, an expert in gender discrimination from the Queensland University of Technology, urged the Women’s Tennis Association [WTA] to begin a conversation about changing the rules.
“If a woman takes 12 months maternity leave in a workplace, the law allows her to return to the same position,” she said.
“Unlike the workplace, for Serena Williams there’s no industrial law protections [in tennis].
“It is one of the inherent disadvantages built into child bearing.
“The WTA could put this issue on the table … this is an issue that should be at a boardroom discussion.”
Pregnancy expert Ms Philippa Middleton from the University of Adelaide said: “Most women who work in Australia have parenting leave entitlements so theoretically they come back to where they have left off and are not ‘demoted’.
“So my personal view is that it is unfair that she has not been seeded.”
Dr Elizabeth Tindle, an expert in sports psychology from the Queensland University of Technology, backed Williams to climb up the rankings quickly if she is fully fit.
“Women after giving birth are often/usually stronger, psychologically as well as physically, than before,” she said.
‘This rule will be reviewed’
Responding to comments made by former men’s World No.4 James Blake that suggested not allowing Williams to be seeded at tournaments was “kind of punishment” and “tough”, a WTA spokesperson said they would review the rules going forward.
“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,” they said.
“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.
“When reviewing these rules the players have traditionally expressed they do not feel that a player coming back from a long-term lay-off, for any reason, should be allowed to be seeded.
“I do expect that this rule will be reviewed further as part of our 2019 rules process.
“As always, we remain committed to reviewing the evolving needs of our players and are very supportive of those players returning from pregnancy to the tour.”
Mandy Minella, a former World No.66 who returned from giving birth to playing inside 100 days, said the rules did not need to be changed.
“I don’t think we would be talking about this if it wasn’t Serena,” she said.
“There are many players who have been out because of pregnancy and there will be many more. It’s not that we are punishment for being pregnant.”
The French Open begins this Sunday.