Serena Williams has been open about her harrowing birth experience and postpartum health complications ever since she had her daughter last September. She had an emergency C-section, then a pulmonary embolism, which lead to coughing spells that ruptured her C-section scar. For the first six weeks as a new mom, she was bedridden. "I almost died giving birth to my daughter, Olympia," Williams wrote in an op-ed about maternal healthcare for CNN.
When Williams made her official return to tennis in March, 14 months after giving birth, she said her body felt different. "I’m coming back from a C-section, which is not very easy to come back from, as well as just getting my body back from being pregnant for 9.5 months or 40 weeks," she told Refinery29 last month.
Ahead of the French Open, many people were wondering if Williams would receive "protected seeding," which is a measure that allows athletes returning from injuries to maintain their rank from before the injury. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) does have a provision called "special ranking" which permits players to enter competitions after being sidelined with a long-term injury (a minimum of six months and maximum of two years). But it historically doesn't protect players' rank or "seed." In a tournament, players are strategically "planted" (aka seeded) into a bracket, so that the best players will not meet until the final round of the competition.
Today, French Open officials announced that they would establish the women's seeds based on WTA ranking, meaning they would not give Williams special seeding. The WTA said in a statement to the Associated Press that they won't let players use their special ranking "for seeding purposes," but they're "very supportive of those players returning from maternity leave to the tour." Several people saw this as the French Open "punishing" women for having a baby.
Williams isn't the first woman tennis player to give birth, but she is setting a unique precedent. The WTA has been reviewing allowing protected seeding for players returning from maternity leave, but that rule wouldn't take effect until 2019, according to ESPN. Technically, pregnancy in itself is not an "injury," but giving birth is a major medical procedure that drastically changes a person's body and life. Before Williams gave birth, she was ranked number one, and currently she is No. 453 — so of course this rule affects her in a big way.
If you want to have a baby and take a few months off or a year off and then come back, you shouldn’t have to be penalized for that. Pregnancy is not an injury.
Many of Williams' competitors, like Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep, have said they support protected seeding. "Tennis is such a selfish sport, but I think when there's a child in your life you lose a little bit of that, because there's something that's so much more important,'' Sharapova told ESPN. "So, yeah, I definitely think that would be a nice change.''
Fans will have to wait and see how Williams performs at the French Open, but she has made it clear that this is a bigger issue than just one competition. "I think it's more of a protection for women to have a life," Williams told the New York Times last month about protected seeding. "You shouldn’t have to wait to have a baby until you retire. If you want to have a baby and take a few months off or a year off and then come back, you shouldn’t have to be penalised for that. Pregnancy is not an injury."