Ahead of Wimbledon, Serena Williams Already Has A Post‑Maternity Leave Win
Yesterday, news broke that former world No. 1 Serena Williams, currently ranked No. 183 in the world after taking maternity leave from the women’s international tennis tour, will be given a discretionary seeding at Wimbledon next week. Williams will be ranked 25th. Usually the tournament’s seeding includes only the top 32 ranked players in the world. This is the first time the All England Club has used its discretion in granting a seeding to a player returning from maternity leave.
“I think and I hope – and it should be under review – to change these rules, maybe not in time for me, but for the next person,” Williams told The Guardian ahead of the decision. While Williams has not lobbied openly for a seeding at Wimbledon, she has been outspoken on the systemic and societal challenges of managing motherhood and furthering a career. “Maybe she’s 25 and she wants to have a baby, but she doesn’t want her career to be over. She wants to continue to play. So I think it’s important to have those rules.”
Williams, long a game-changer in the sport, is ushering in change again. Yesterday, the same day that Wimbledon announced its seeding decision, the WTA announced it is revisiting its maternity leave policy, which currently does not allow returning players to apply their pre-leave ranking to seeding.
“We are in discussions with our players and exploring with them what would be the right and balanced standard that they can agree to,” said Steve Simon, WTA chairman and CEO, in a statement. “Every voice needs to be heard and taken into account as any change would require the full consensus of our players.”
The fact that this is open for discussion already feels like a win. The setback of women’s careers due to motherhood is widely accepted, framed as a temporary hiccup that will be caught up in the long term — even though research into lifetime earnings shows this is not the case. The fact that women rejoin the workforce at all is considered a success; their earnings never equal their male counterparts.
When women raise this unfairness, the response is generally akin to how one male (of course) commentator put it, when fans decried Williams’ lack of seeding at the French Open in May: “Let’s dial back the hyperbole, tout de suite.” He then (of course) pointed to top tennis player Kim Clijsters, who came back unseeded, after the birth of her daughter, to win the 2009 US Open. Clijsters caught up — why can’t Williams?
Williams’ global celebrity and domination of the sport has afforded her and her fans the platform to question the logic of the WTA tournament seeding system. This has forced the WTA to grapple with the question she’s raising: Why should women be content to play catch up, rather than pick up where they left off? Asking this is not hyperbole; it’s common sense in a world in which women’s prime years of physical prowess and productivity coincide with their span of peak fertility.
The All England Club’s decision to recognize Williams’ pre-maternity achievement via seeding for Wimbledon 2018 changes the game for every player who comes after her. And that’s a win for everyone.