Seeding Serena Williams is not only the best thing for Serena — it’s the best thing for tennis fans Williams has more than earned the ‘unfair’ advantage
Now that the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club has come to the sensible decision to seed seven-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams in this year’s tournament, let’s not have any whining about how this gives an unfair advantage to the woman who was the No. 1 player in the world before she took time off to have a baby.
Despite being ranked 183rd, Williams is clearly among the top 32 players in the world as she plays her way back into shape after giving birth to her daughter last September. We all know the current ranking is a temporary condition for the greatest female tennis player of all time.
In the run-up to this year’s tournament, 29-year-old Dominika Cibulkova read the writing on the wall and complained that seeding Williams would not be “the right thing to do. She went on to say that “if they put her in front of me, then I will lose a spot that I am supposed to have.”
Cibulkova, who is ranked 32nd in the world and now enters Wimbledon unseeded, will face tougher early competition because of the decision to seed Williams. But with all due respect to the Slovakian star, the folks who run Wimbledon did what was right.
To do otherwise would only continue to punish Williams for the most human act of all: having a baby. The idea that pregnancy should by itself harm a women’s career is a notion from the unenlightened past. In the case of Williams, it would be particularly pernicious. She was ranked No. 1 and had just won the Australian Open when she went on maternity leave early last year.
Not seeding Williams would have also punished sports fans, who want to see the biggest stars perform on the biggest stages. In golf, as a past champion, Tiger Woods is eligible to play the Masters and PGA Championship for life. He also is a virtual shoo-in for special exemptions from the United States Golf Association to play in other headline tournaments — just as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were even when they were past their primes. Call it a lifetime achievement exemption.
In basketball, we are all used to the idea that referees call the game differently for superstars than they do for rank-and-file players. Do you remember James Harden being called for many offensive fouls when he throws his arms up into defenders behind the 3-point line? Back in the day, was shoulder-dropping Karl Malone called for many offensive fouls in crunch time?
These special rules are made not just to honor all-time sports greats but also to satisfy the many fans who want to see them play when the stakes are highest. When it comes to women’s tennis, there is no bigger star than Williams. She holds an Open-era record 23 Grand Slam titles, and fans flock to see her.
The reality that fans want to see top stars on the court no doubt plays a role in the WTA rule that allows players to have protected rankings to enter eight tournaments over a 12-month period. Having some sort of seeding protection seems like a logical next step. Seedings are meant to help the best players make it deeper into tournaments by pairing them against lower-ranked players early in tournaments, thus preserving the most compelling matchups for the later rounds when all eyes are watching. Under that rubric, it only makes sense that Williams be seeded.
Is Williams receiving special treatment? Yes. Has she earned it? Yes. Is it unfair? No. Who benefits from that? Everyone who loves tennis.
Williams went unseeded in the three tournaments she has entered in the past year, a situation decried by even some of her most bitter rivals. But things are changing. Wimbledon has seeded Williams 25th. And the U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the US Open, has indicated that it will revise its seedings when maternity leave is a factor.
With Wimbledon set to begin next week, Williams, who plays well on grass, looks to be rounding back into form. She won two matches at the recent French Open before dropping out with a pectoral injury. So she could be a factor. Or not. The reality is that she still has to play and win seven matches to be Wimbledon champion, seed or no seed.