No Laughing Matter: It’s Time For The WTA To Change It’s Way Of Thinking

WASHINGTON, March 21, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

As the Miami Open presented by Itaú commences its final year at Crandon Park Tennis Center on Key Biscayne this week before heading up the Florida palm beach coast to its new home at Hard Rock Stadium in 2019, did you see the women’s singles draw after it was revealed Sunday night?

Sure, there’s Simona Halep seeded No. 1 and Caroline Wozniacki at No. 2, just like at Indian Wells. However, just hours after Naomi Osaka won the BNP Paribas Open for her first WTA singles title on Sunday afternoon – the culmination of a life-changing two weeks for the 20-year-old up-and-coming Japanese star – she learned her first-round opponent in Miami would be none other than former World No. 1 Serena Williams, who is now unseeded and ranked No. 491 (with 65 WTA points) and playing in just her second tour-level tournament since she began her comeback from maternity leave.

Huh?

“It’s so interesting, such an amazing punctuation mark,” said Eurosport’s Catherine Whitaker, who co-hosts The Tennis Podcast with David Law of BBC 5 Live. “Serena Williams is the best player in the world and she ought to have a protected ranking – not necessarily No. 1 – but there should be some sort of provision for maternity leave for players taking time off. 

“Naomi Osaka, champion of Indian Wells, has drawn Serena Williams in round one in Miami. You cannot make that up. It’s ridiculous.”

Law playfully rebutted, “It’s brilliant! When is that match? I want to book up the night.” Then, he got more serious and explained, “It’s a shame in a way that, sometimes, these things have to come up for them to be addressed.

“It’s good news that Serena Williams’s pregnancy and absence has now shown light and the fact it needs addressing and is now being talked about. As someone who is on the comeback, she needs a place in the seedings instead of just being shunted aside because she’s been out of the game being pregnant for a year.” 

That’s a good common sense argument and one that should have been already addressed. Are you listening, WTA?

Hall of Famer and Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport joined the debate on Tuesday while commenting on early-round play in Miami. She looked at the matter from both Williams’s and Osaka’s points of view, saying, “There’s no rhyme or reason for when the WTA has used discretionary seeding … but Serena should definitely be seeded.” Davenport pointed out that unlike the ATP, which used its updated rankings for this week (after Indian Wells) to seed its players for the Miami Open men’s singles draw, the WTA did not. If it had, she noted, Osaka would have been seeded as her ranking improved after winning Indian Wells from No. 44 to No. 22. Like Indian Wells, the Miami Open is a 96-player draw and the top 32 players are seeded and receive first-round byes.

Granted, because fans, media and tournament organizers all want the stars – certainly Williams and now, because of her newfound fame, Osaka – to remain as long as possible, the question that begs asking is: Should there be a uniform protection for all players regardless of their absence – whether because of injury or pregnancy? And, shouldn’t there be gender equity in how the seedings are determined?

Unfortunately, it’s too late to change the Miami Open draw, but what about the rest of the season? Until Williams has played enough tournaments and accumulated enough rankings points to be seeded again – and no longer needs the mercy of a wild card to gain main draw entry – the same thing will be repeated week after week, tournament after tournament.

The Osaka-Williams match will go on as scheduled as part of the Miami Open’s Wednesday day session on Stadium Court and, undoubtedly, draw a tremendous amount of curiosity from fans and by the media. However, it’s a shame – and an embarrassment – for the sport that both Osaka and Williams will not be around after the first round. Further adding insult to injury, the Osaka-Williams winner gets to face World No. 4 Elina Svitolina in the second round. Ouch!

Fate clearly has a twisted sense of humor.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.