It’s Serena’s first time back on the Grand Slam tour since her victory at the Australian Open in 2017 where she raised her trophy with her daughter in her belly. Olympia was born in September last year and Serena (aside from the odd small tournament here and there) has stayed off the tour ever since.
Paris is filled with posters honouring the Serena's return. Nike, her official sponsor who has made t-shirts, banners and billboards, is celebrating tennis’s foremost matriarch with a slogan that reads: The queen is back. Never before in the history of sport has one woman’s return been more celebrated, or…. more angst ridden. It seems like it should be all game, set, match. But it isn’t.
The ball is too heavy with expectation and meaning. And every time Serena powers through it with a half volley of reckoning, scores of women sit with baited breath, hoping that she will stay in the lines. Because staying in the lines means staying on the court, and staying on the court means she has proven something, we have proven something.
We have proven that we can, in fact, do everything. And this is important, because there are so, so many people out there just waiting for us to fail. Waiting for her, to fail. After all, she is now a mother. And mothers must mother – off the court, as opposed to offering that special breed of the “all encompassing slay”.
Every ball toss before every serve is a reach. And the space between the strings meeting the felt is ripe with questions. Can she make it through to the next round? Is this even possible? She is not even seeded? Should she be seeded? And before Serena serves, a multitude of think pieces and opinions have already hit the web waves. The theme that finds itself most on offer – the question of whether she should be seeded or not.
For all women tennis players the rules are: your ranking remains protected for eight tournaments in a 12-month period. Serena left the game at number 1, but that was in February 2017 (when she won the Australian Open), so because twelve months have past, Williams now starts at the bottom.
The argument is one that is technical: For example, if Serena did not play in twelve months and enters the French Open as the first seed, then that means the last seed (32nd) falls out of the tournament because everyone moves one step back. Is it fair that one woman shouldn’t play because another had a baby? It’s a double-edged sword. But it is as gendered a sword as it is technical. As swords tend to be.
In other professional environment, there have been reasonable debates raising important questions surrounding maternity leave, as well as the limitations of climbing the career ladder because women bear children. For example, a lot of male dominated professional environments are hesitant to promote women to higher positions of power because maternity leave “gets in the way of productivity”. “What’s the point? They’re just going to leave and have children and we’re going to have to replace them for a time anyway”. Men do not have this problem.
This very “punishment” or the possibility of it is also what deters women from having children or putting it off until a later time. Balancing a biological right and a right to a successful career is an age-old challenge women continue face. It is an archaic rule housed in an all-imposing patriarchal society.
So the question of women in sport (that ever male dominant arena) deserves a degree of interrogation as well. Should women be effectively punished because they have the right to choose to have a child and when will we stop demonising pregnancy?
The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) is revisiting their archaic rule book, but here’s a penny and you can fault me or double fault me on this. A lot of women out there know, believe, in fact, that Serena’s seeding doesn’t matter. Because come rain or shine, she will win. She has to. And the fact that she does so while not seeded is perhaps the biggest point of all.
Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on W24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of W24.
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