Serena Williams’ return to Wimbledon is no different from any other woman going back to work after maternity leave

By making the decision to have a baby, tennis effectively told Serena that her years of hard work meant nothing

Tobi Oredein
Wednesday 27 June 2018 16:40 BST
Serena Williams has been seeded for Wimbledon
Serena Williams has been seeded for Wimbledon (Getty Images )

There was tennis before Serena Williams and there will be tennis after Serena Williams. Before Serena and her sister Venus became the superstars of the game in the late 90s, tennis was dominated by the white and the wealthy, typified by long-lasting rallies. However, with the arrival and reign of the Williams sisters, they morphed the sport into a more athletic, power driven game and showed the world that working class black girls could also be tennis champions.

20 years later, when you think of women’s tennis, Serena is the poster girl of the sport. Her magnificence on the court has earned her 23 Grand Slam championships – giving her the title of the most Grand Slam tournaments won in the Open era of women’s tennis.

Last year January, shortly after winning her 23rd Grand Slam at the Australian Open, the 36-year-old put her career on pause when she announced her pregnancy. The world was left in awe, as it meant she won the Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant.

Yet like any other woman with a career, the realities and unfair consequences of motherhood hit the champion when she returned to tennis in 2018. When Serena announced her departure from the game, she was ranked as the world’s number one player – but on return from maternity leave, she was unseeded. By no longer being the number one seed or having any place among the top players, it meant the tennis ace was likely to meet top players in the early rounds of tournaments.

Many may say that shouldn’t a problem for a player who has been the benchmark of the sport for 20 years – but it can be compared to any mother returning from maternity leave and having to prove her worth all over again. By making the decision to have a baby, tennis – well, specifically the French Open – effectively told Serena that her years of hard work meant nothing.

Yet, Wimbledon decided to give Serena a seed ranking. By making Serena the 25th seed in the tournament, she has a better chance of going further, which is good for the game. Serena is a huge draw for the sport, bringing eyeballs to her games and more attention in traditional and social media. In fact, because of her near history-making moment in 2015, she was the reason the US women’s final sold out before the men’s final for the first time.

No doubt her return is brilliant for the game of tennis, but it is even better for motherhood. With the Women’s Tennis Association ranking Serena so low, it did feel like she was being penalised for being pregnant. That feeling of being reprimanded for starting a family is no doubt a feeling that many mothers feel when they announce and return from their pregnancy. Yet, Wimbledon’s decision to give her a seeding feels like a win for mothers and women who want to be mothers. Wimbledon has told her and us that her two decades of hard work haven’t been completely forgotten because she’s had a child.

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Serena has been vocal about the decision to not give her a seed ranking at Roland Garros, and the need to protect the ranking of female players who want to start families. This will help to take away the stigma attached to working mums. Women are often made to feel shame because they want to return to work, but Serena’s determination to push the issue will help change that rhetoric, as she was not prepared to let her 20-year career go down the drain because of pregnancy. Furthermore, it gives confidence to other mums that you shouldn’t have to choose between a career and a child.

The truth is the WTA needs to do better by female players who choose to start families. At the moment, players are ranked on a point based system based on performance within the last 52 weeks. This means if you don’t play within the last year, you will go unseeded upon your return, regardless of how highly ranked the player was before. One suggestion would be to freeze the players’ points total from the moment they announce they are leaving the tour on maternity leave, to the day they give birth. That way, a player will not slip down the WTA rankings as fast.

While many may think it’s unfair to compare the career and mothering woes of Serena Williams to the average working mum, her determination to be seeded in a way that reflects her career and Wimbledon’s decision to take that on board sets the precedent that it is not women that need to adapt and change when having kids, it’s our workplaces and institutions.

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