Serena Williams, and to a lesser extent, Victoria Azarenka, are presenting the WTA Tour and the Slams with a very difficult question at the moment. Both are currently making their comeback to the game after a lengthy period away from the court due to pregnancy. The problem is not whether to award wildcards to them, a problem the sport’s tournament directors did have to contend with last year after the return of Maria Sharapova from her ban for meldonium.
She should be seeded
Serena Williams can use her protected ranking to enter tournaments, which for Williams is #1. Besides, there would be little controversy were either awarded wildcards and rightly so. After their achievements in the game, they deserve to be given every helping hand on their way back into the sport. But, as Serena Williams pointed out, a pregnancy is not an injury, the situation in which the protected ranking system is usually used.
Without a seeding, Williams faces a much tougher road back. For example in Miami, she was drawn in the first round against Naomi Osaka, who had just won in Indian Wells, and was unusually also unseeded. In the third round a week before, in Miami, Williams had faced her elder sister Venus in Indian Wells, the only other tournament she has played this year. If Serena Williams still had her seeding, she’d typically be protected from these early challenges. In a sense, it feels as though Williams is being penalised for her decision to have a child.
The sport’s chiefs do appear to be listening, which is an encouraging sign. It may well be so that it should not have required someone of Serena Williams’ stature to start this conversation, something that we followers of the game are just as guilty of. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a step in the right direction. Wimbledon announced that it was considering awarding a seeding to Williams. Other players have also been supportive, including Simona Halep, who opined that Serena Williams should be top seed at the Championships.
But is a seeding actually the right move?
The only problem with the arguments in favour of Williams being seeded is that they don’t give much weight to the state of her game. Serena Williams return in Indian Wells and Miami was not an easy one. Though she did beat one seed, Kiki Bertens, who recently won the Charleston Open, it was a tight match. Her other win came against Zarina Diyas, a 24-year-old outside the top 50. She lost to Venus and Osaka, without winning a set in either match.
It would be premature to pass judgement over Williams’ return on the basis of four matches. But it would surely be even worse to do the same without even considering them. Williams is only human, her comeback from a pregnancy, that was not without its complications, was never going to be an unbroken string of successes. Expectations should be tempered by probable realities. There is every likelihood of future triumphs for Williams, but they’re not likely to arrive immediately.
The top seed is surely, in essence, considered the most likely player to win the tournament. The top seed at Roland Garros and Wimbledon is surely effectively considered the very best player in the world. Is that Serena Williams at the moment? Wimbledon is still nearly two months away, much could have changed by the time it arrives. But if the game is where it is now, would it be right to make that claim about Williams?
Serena Williams is right to say that it is not fair to effectively penalise her for her pregnancy. But its also not clear whether it would be fair to demote other players to award her a seeding because of it. There really isn’t any fair way to resolve this. Returning from maternity leave often presents challenges even outside the sport’s world, but the challenges are multiplied by the physicality of modern sport, particularly in individual sports.
At the moment, the question as to whether or not Serena Williams is playing the tennis of a top seed or a seeded player at all hasn’t been answered. After her withdrawal from the Madrid Open, the wait for the answer will go on. Williams has more than earned the right to take as long as she needs to give it, but until she does, it’s too soon to be awarding seedings, both for the game generally, and probably, Williams herself.