WTA Changes Rule Book to Ease Comebacks for Mothers

WTA Changes Rule Book to Ease Comebacks for Mothers

After a season in which Serena Williams’s return from pregnancy forced officials to make on-the-fly adjustments to tennis’s rules, the WTA this month updated its rule book to give mothers more flexibility.

Williams’s clothing choices also spurred a clarification that allows catsuits like the one she wore at the French Open.

Previously, the WTA rule book governed maternity and injury/illness by the same rules, meaning that the dispensation for pregnancy was the same as for a sprained ankle.

Now, pregnancy will receive more consideration. A returning mother will have up to three years after the birth of her child to be eligible for a special ranking to gain entry into tournaments. The maximum had been two years after her last competition.

Players returning from childbirth or injury who were out of competition for 52 weeks or longer can also use that special ranking for 12 tournaments, up from eight. At her first eight tournaments, a returning player who was ranked in a range that would have earned her a seeding when she left the tour will be given an “additional seed.” That guarantees her an unseeded opponent in the first round, and does not bump any players who earned a seeding from their current rankings.

The topic of special seedings received attention because of Williams, who returned to the tour in March six months after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. Ranked No. 1 at the time of her pregnancy, Williams was unseeded at the first three tournaments she played this year, including the French Open.

But Wimbledon, which has frequently exercised its discretion to change seedings, made Williams, a seven-time singles champion there who was ranked 183rd at the time, the 25th seed. She subsequently made the final. The United States Open, which had announced its own policy of giving special consideration to mothers in its seedings, put Williams at 17th; she again made the final.

In both cases, another player lost her seeding to make room for Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles.

Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Grand Slam singles champion who is a member of the WTA Players’ Council, expressed satisfaction with the reforms in a statement from the tour.

“Our players should feel comfortable and confident to take time away from the courts to have a family or recover from injury, and I think these new rules support that,” said Azarenka, who gave birth to her son, Leo, in 2016. “This is a really good first step, and we are using it as a base to continue to look for ways to improve and highlight the importance of mothers working and being on tour. My goal as a member of the Players’ Council is to make sure that the WTA is the pioneer of being the most progressive and inclusive association in sports.”

Azarenka, who was in the top 10 when she went on maternity leave, was not given special seedings as she worked her way back on to the tour, a return that was complicated by a lengthy custody dispute.

Williams’s return from having a child also stretched the boundaries of tennis’s rules about match attire. At the French Open, the first Grand Slam tournament of her comeback, she commanded the spotlight even more than usual with a form-fitting black-and-red suit.

The bold outfit made a splash when Williams wore it in Paris in May, and then created waves months later when Bernard Giudicelli, president of the French Tennis Federation, bemoaned it.

Giudicelli told France’s Tennis Magazine that the French Open would introduce a dress code to prevent such outfits at his tournament, because “one must respect the game and place.”

While Giudicelli’s comments were widely criticized, it was not clear that Williams’s outfit had been within the existing rules. Officials generally have not permitted players to wear ankle-length leggings, or any tight pants without a skirt on top.

The WTA has now made the rule explicit, allowing leggings and midthigh-length compression shorts to be worn with or without a skirt, shorts or a dress.

Williams wore the catsuit for health reasons rather than fashion ones, though she said the outfit made her feel like a superhero. She has dealt with life-threatening blood clots before, including after her daughter’s birth via cesarean section. Williams also wore compression tights at Wimbledon and the United States Open, but she wore a dress over them.

Williams had brushed off concerns about a dress code at the French Open, saying she was confident that any tournament director would make exceptions for health reasons.

Among the other WTA rules changes, the number of permitted breaks for a bathroom visit or to change of attire in a match was reduced to one from two. After 25-second serve clocks were tested during North American hardcourt tournaments last summer, the biggest WTA tournaments will use them in 2019, with all tournaments adding them by 2020. The women’s tour also adopted a version of a rule from the men’s tour that was intended to deter players from retiring from their first-round matches with a pre-existing injury to earn prize money.

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