Having clarified that they can offer the seven-time Wimbledon champion a seeding, the All England Club must do the right thing or risk being seen to punish someone for having a baby
There are a few good reasons Wimbledon should break with precedent and offer a player ranked 449 in the world a seeding at this year’s championships. The overriding one is the fact she has won seven titles there and is called Serena Williams.
Given the state of flux in the women’s game, the finest player of the modern era might well be the best player in the 2018 draw – certainly nobody in the top 32 would relish playing her in the first round if she came at them from outside the seedings.
That said, her comeback at 36 has yet to pick up pace in four matches since she stepped gingerly back on the tour this year after a difficult childbirth in September. She is still reaching for full fitness after early losses in Indian Wells and Miami, so things could get messy before the opening day at Wimbledon on 2 July.
Although Williams has slipped almost from view in the rankings after her long absence in 2017, as the owner of 23 slam titles, the former world No 1 has a protected ranking to get into the majors. However, when asked on Tuesday if this would be good enough for her to be placed into the cosseted zone of the top 32, the chairman of the All England Club, Philip Brook, and the club’s chief executive officer, Richard Lewis, were momentarily wrong-footed.
They said, correctly, that the wording of the rule book was vague and ambiguous. The men’s seedings were fixed according to the top 32 rankings of the ATP Tour – which deprives Andy Murray of a discretionary seeding on his return – but there was no mention of 32 in provisions for the women’s draw. It took a phone call to the WTA headquarters in Florida to open the door: Wimbledon did indeed have the discretion to offer Williams a precious seeding, and they issued a quick clarification to that effect.
The ball, in every way, is in their court. The odds are they will do the right thing. They usually do. If there is one instinct that drives the administration and stewardship of the championships it is probity.
For the 150 years of its existence, Wimbledon has batted away controversy with the untroubled ease of Roger Federer planting his back-hand down the line on the clipped lawns of Centre Court. Now the quiet powerhouse of tennis has been lumbered with a problem not of its own making, but definitely in its gift to solve. It will be a test of their class and wisdom when the seedings committee meet on 26 June.
The other reasons? Natural justice, locker-room sympathy and the good of the game.
As Williams pointed out this week, it seems unfair to deny the privilege of a seeding to great players who have been away to have a baby. One tennis insider ludicrously described Williams’s decision to have a baby as, “a lifestyle choice”, as if having a baby is somehow dialled up from a glossy magazine poll.
The players, largely, are behind her. After Williams went out early in Indian Wells, the world No 1 Simona Halep said the American should have been seeded No 1 in the draw, and the Miami tournament director James Blake agreed that leaving her out of the seedings looked like “punishment” for being a mother.
The counter argument to giving Williams preferential treatment is that other players have slogged away on the tour to make the top 32 at the home of tennis, and one of them will have to be bounced. Well, that precarious outer territory of the seedings exists anyway. Williams, the most decorated player of the Open era, has earned her right to be regarded as special. If she were to trip and lose to a seed in the first round, the draw would instantly be a poorer attraction.
There is also, of course, the seeming unfairness of two-time champion and home favourite Murray possibly having to play Roger Federer in the first round in his comeback slam. However, it is unlikely he will complain. He lost his coach, Amélie Mauresmo, in May 2016 when she said could not juggle motherhood and coaching among other things. But Murray, who has championed equality in the game more than any other male player, won Wimbledon that year, not to mention Olympic gold and reach No 1 in the world.
Last year Maria Sharapova spared the All England Club the embarrassment of offering her a wildcard by refusing to request one when returning from a 15-month absence after failing a drugs test. She ultimately postponed her return to the big-time until the US Open, where she was embraced with the warmth of a homecoming queen. She played four matches – all of them dramatic three-setters on the tournament’s Arthur Ashe showcourt, the clearest possible signal that Sharapova was their go-to star of the fortnight.
If it was good enough for the Russian to be given a red carpet in New York, it is good enough for the American to get the same welcome at Wimbledon.
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