Players want WTA to look at special ranking, seeding rules

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Victoria Azarenka is a three-time Miami champion, so she's a tough draw for anybody in the tournament. (AP)

The WTA Player Council is considering amendments to the special rankings rules for players coming back from pregnancy, according to Victoria Azarenka.

Currently, the WTA provides players returning from injury layoffs or pregnancy with a “special ranking” that can be used to enter tournaments, but not for seeding at those tournaments. Players can enter eight events using the protected ranking they had when they left, including for two Premier Mandatory events and two Grand Slams. Wild cards do not count towards the quota, and former champions of big events can receive unlimited wild cards.

The provision has received scrutiny since Serena Williams returned to tournament play a few weeks ago. Though she has a protected ranking of No. 1, Williams has been unseeded at the two WTA events she has played, and has run into top players in the first few rounds. At Indian Wells, she played her sister, Venus, in the third round, falling in two sets. At Miami, she exited in the first round against Naomi Osaka, who was coming of a title at Indian Wells.

Azarenka, another player who is returning following childbirth, said a balance had to be found between the returning player and those who had moved up into seeding positions in the meantime.

"I look at it from two perspectives, because the conversation started because of Serena, you know, and all respect to her, if we look at her achievements and where she's come from, where I come from, it might be a fair choice that we do have a seeding in the tournaments after coming back," Azarenka told press at Miami following her opening win. 

"On the other perspective that I have to look at, as well, is the other players who worked really hard [and won't have] that seeding. It's a difficult question, because if we do make that rule, it will have to be for everybody. So we have started this conversation a little bit in the player council. I'm a part of the player council. So we need to make sure that everybody is on the same level."

But Azarenka did say that players returning from pregnancy should not be under the same schedule as injured players. While the amount of time players have to come back from pregnancy has recently been extended and is now the same as for players coming back from injury, Azarenka wants it to be longer.

Final point of Azarenka's match against Keys in Miami: 

"I don't think there should be a limit on the maternity leave as the same as is on the injury," she said. "I don't think that going, you know—and starting a family you have the same pressure of two years to be able to come back and use your protected ranking."

The Belarusian returned to tour in 2017 just a few months following the birth of her son, Leo, but was then sidelined for several more months because of a custody dispute. She still has not announced whether she can now play a full schedule.

Miami tournament director James Blake would like to see players coming back from pregnancy get seeded based on their protected ranking, saying that otherwise, "It's a kind of punishment which is tough.

"It makes sense to protect someone who goes on maternity break."

Simona Halep, whose coach, Darren Cahill, brought attention to the topic by arguing for more such protections on Twitter, agreed.

"To give birth is the best thing in the world. It's more than a sport," she said at Indian Wells, adding that Williams should have been the No. 1 seed at the tournament.  

But Mandy Minella, who also recently returned to tour from the birth of her first child with a protected ranking of No. 104, does not want changes. 

"The rule should stay as it is," said Minella, speaking to the BBC. "I don't think we would be talking about this if it wasn't Serena... She's so good that she will get back to the top.

''If seeded now, she would take the spot of another girl.''

Williams has not commented on the issue.


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