CAN ONE WOMAN’S VOICE SHIFT THE RULES? HOW SERENA WILLIAMS IS WINNING OUTSIDE THE COURT
The U.S. Open recently announced a change in how players will be seeded after taking maternity leave. In a classic case of reevaluating long-standing decisions to determine whether the current solution can be improved, the U.S. Open is proving to be a pioneer, changing tournament rules to even the playing field for women returning to the sport after pregnancy.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Katrina Adams, president and chairwoman of the United States Tennis Association, said the U.S. Open had long made structural adjustments that reflected social change, adding that the tournament, which is owned by the U.S.T.A., has a history of leading, especially in gender equality.
“We’ve shown that we have been a leader over the decades, from equal prize money onward to what we are doing today,” she said. “We are all about social justice and equality, and this is definitely an instance of equality.”
Adams suggested that forcing a player to come back from pregnancy at a lower position than when she left would be like asking a top executive to return from pregnancy leave at an entry level position in her company.
Williams was ranked No. 1 at the time she stopped playing. Due to inactivity, her ranking fell to No. 491. As the WTA rules stand today, she is able to use a protected ranking to enter up to eight tournaments a year, but for Williams and those calling for a new look at the rules, it’s not enough.
On Good Morning America recently, Serena herself pointed to an old decision as part of the issue. “Unfortunately, in the ’90s they changed the rule whereas if you were injured [and] then you came back, you lose your seeding. They never took into account women that left No. 1 [because of pregnancy] and left not for an injury, but to have a great life and not give up tennis, but to come back,” she explained.
Of course, Serena was not the first female tennis player to give birth then return to the pro tour. Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong both came back (and won) after giving birth well before the 1990’s. Kim Clijsters gave birth to her child in 2008 and won the U.S. Open in 2009. But Williams is the first to use her stature in the sport to force reevaluation of that decision made decades earlier.
In retrospect, we can assume that the decision made in the 1990’s ruling was just a harmless oversight, not an intentional jab at expectant mothers or an attempt to discourage women on the tour from having children. John McEnroe, the legendary U.S. tennis player and three-time Wimbledon champion, who now sits on the tournament’s seedings committee, agrees that it is time for a new decision.
“I don’t think there would be a player that would complain, especially the top ones, if she was one of the top eight,” he said to ABC News. “Why in the world would they want to play her in the first, second, third round? Nor should they, in my opinion.”
Serena has already earned her place in history as one of the best (if not the absolute best) female tennis players of our time. Her grit, determination and stature in the sport is helping to win another battle off the court– forcing a new conversation on old decisions.
Do you agree with this decision? Share your thoughts on whether you think the sport is leading social change or playing favorites?