WTA players returning to tennis following pregnancy or long-term injury and using a special ranking are now able to use that special ranking for “seeding purposes”.
This is one of several rule changes announced by the WTA on Monday, a suite of reforms approved by the tour’s Board of Directors and developed in consultation with the playing group.
Players can now use their special ranking at 12 tournaments – up from eight, which was the total under the previous rule.
And players will no longer be stopped from or penalised for wearing leggings or compression shorts; previously, these could only be worn under a dress, skirt or shorts.
Any player entering a tournament with a special ranking is now entitled to use it for seeding purposes.
“If a player’s Special Ranking would qualify her for a seeded position, then she will be an ‘Additional Seed’ in the draw, meaning that she will be randomly drawn to an available line in the draw that does not play a seed in the first round,” explained the WTA in a media release.
“With this solution, no player will be bumped from her earned seeded position.
“This applies to all draws except for 48 and 96 main draws where no player plays a seed in the first round.”
The rules have been updated for players specifically returning from pregnancy; mothers have three years – now calculated from the date of the child’s birth – in which to use their special ranking.
The rules originally came under the microscope when Serena Williams returned from childbirth in March 2018.
Williams was ranked No.1 when she stepped off the tour in early 2017 after winning the Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant. Her special ranking reflected that.
However, while she was able to use this special ranking to enter tournaments during her comeback, it did not equate to her being seeded.
In the first three tournaments of her return – Indian Wells, Miami and Roland Garros – she was unseeded. Wimbledon broke with ranking convention and seeded Williams 25th, despite her “actual” ranking being No.181 at the time.
In Paris, Williams wore a full-length set of compression leggings, an outfit she described as being “Wakanda-inspired”.
“I had a lot of problems with my blood clots, and, God, I don’t know how many I have had in the past 12 months. So (there) is definitely a little functionality to (the outfit),” she explained.
“I have been wearing pants in general a lot when I play, so I can keep the blood circulation going. It’s a fun suit but it’s also functional, so I can be able to play without any problems.”
Several female players took to twitter querying the legality of the outfit, while French Tennis Federation president Bernard Guidicelli was not impressed.
“I believe we have sometimes gone too far. Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted,” he told France’s Tennis Magazine. “You have to respect the game and the place.”
Victoria Azarenka, a member of the WTA Player Council who also made a comeback to tennis following childbirth, felt the rule changes were a win for players – especially for new mothers.
“I’m very happy with the constructive process we have gone through,” she said.
“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.
“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.”
Added WTA CEO Steve Simon: “These changes are designed to fully support players in their return to competition, while maintaining the highest standards of athletic competition and fairness.
“We (also) understand the importance of modernising the dress code and ensuring that our players have flexibility in choosing the clothing they wear. Our rules should not prohibit that.”
Several other rule changes – relating to toilet breaks, prize money distribution and the roll-out of the shot clock – were also announced.
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