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Image / Editorial

Serena Williams will compete again but at a lower level because her sport considers childbirth an injury


by Niamh ODonoghue
23rd May 2018
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How does the former number one ranked tennis player in the world drop to 453th place in fourteen months?

She gives birth.

After delivering her daughter Olympia last September, Serena Williams is set to make her postpartum debut at the French Open next week except she will not be invited to play in the top match unless the French Tennis Federation makes a special allowance because of Williams’ low-ranking status post-baby. Despite being a 23-time Grand Slam champion, her current ranking means that she risks facing top-ranked players in the early rounds; running her the risk of early elimination.

The World’s Tennis Association, WTA, is considering a rule change to protect seedings for highly ranked players returning from maternity leave but the earliest that could take effect is next year, according to The Guardian. “It’s such an incredible effort for a woman to come back from childbirth physically and emotionally”, said friend and rival Maria Sharapova.

Elina Svitolina, who won the Italian Open, also wanted to see Williams seeded this week. Simona Halep put it in the plainest possible terms: “It’s normal to give birth. It’s normal to have protected ranking.” This, she continued, “is more than tennis.”

Breaks for pregnancy and childbirth shouldn’t be subject to the same rules as those for injuries, which is the status quo. The WTA would be well to remember that Williams managed to win the Australian Open last year while three months pregnant.

While waiting for the new suggested rules to come to play, some federations are making the return from childbirth easier by protecting their status prior to pregnancy. Williams is able to compete in Paris because the Women’s Tennis Association at least does have a “special ranking rule,” which allows competitors to use a previous ranking to enter up to eight tournaments within 12 months of their return from childbirth or serious injuries.

It’s not unusual for any female athlete at the top of her game to take a break, start a family, then return to the level she was at before. Often she returns and performs to an to an even higher level. Irish athlete Sonia O’Sullivan won her silver medal at the 2000 Olympic games in Syndey just 12 months after giving birth to her daughter. Another top-level long-distance runner and European champion Fionnuala McCormack ran a total of 1,650 miles during her pregnancy. Kenyan long-distance runner Mary Keitany is the world record holder in a women-only marathon, having won the 2017 London Marathon and has two children.

The salient point is that for years now women have been, and will continue to, return to their sport after starting a family. It’s now time for the world’s sports federations and associations to offer better support, care and respect for female athletes instead of punishing them for something as natural and fundamental as childbirth. Let’s hope they get the sorted before Wimbledon or the draw there will be very lopsided indeed.

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