They haven’t been dubbed the Serena Amendments, but there’s little doubt the rulebook changes introduced to women’s tennis next year owe a great deal to the US tennis great.
- New rules will give seeded players a special ranking if they’re out of competition for a year or more
- Female players will also be given greater freedom to wear what they like on court
- Players will be permitted just one toilet break or change of attire per match, instead of two
The announcement on the website of the international governing body, the Women’s Tennis Association, is even accompanied by a photo of Serena Williams in action on court.
The overhaul follows her headline-grabbing return to professional tennis this year, after the birth of her daughter.
Former WTA senior vice president Peter Johnston told PM it’s all about modernising the game’s workplace.
“I think this is a very practical measure that the WTA has taken, given the Serena example.
“But also there’s been other examples of high-profile, or highly ranked women players — Victoria Azarenka is another one who comes to mind — who have been trying to resume the tour after giving birth, and one thing about players’ rankings is they can disappear quite quickly if you’re off the tour.
“It’s hard, your rankings count for only 12 months, and so if you drop out for injury or in the case of childbirth, [it’s] very hard to pick back up onto the tour.
“I think this step by the WTA is one attempt to try to keep players in the game for longer.”
The rulebook changes
She might be one of the sport’s biggest drawcards, but Williams saw her ranking slide to 451 after her return to competition, and she was unseeded at some events.
The strain of the hard battle back to the top was perhaps evident during the final of the US Open, as Naomi Osaka’s historic win was overshadowed by Williams’ outbursts at a chair umpire who penalised her for on-court coaching and racquet abuse.
The amendments to the Women’s Tennis Association rulebook for 2019 will see seeded players who’ve been out of competition for a year or more granted a special ranking to ensure they can return at the top level.
The WTA Players’ Council member said in a statement:
“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.”
But up-and-coming women tennis players will face a longer climb through the professional rankings after the sport’s governing body moved to make it easier for those at the elite levels to return from injury or having a child.
Johnston believes the changes could see younger players forced to wait in the wings.
“That’s always the nature of it,” he said.
“There is always that impact. When you do something for the top, does it actually hurt the ones coming up next?
“If you allow someone coming back on the tour to be seeded, then the first person to be impacted is the one who lost their seeding on their ranking.
“The tour is the highest level of ruthless professional sport, and it’s also the entertainment business, where you have to balance the needs to having your best players staying in the game as long as they can.
“The best young ones will emerge regardless, it just may take a little longer.”
New dress code
It’s not the only change to follow Williams’ return to professional tennis this year.
The black skin-tight bodysuit she wore during play at the French Open will no longer raise the eyebrows and the concerns of tournament officials, with rules amended to give female players greater latitude in choosing their attire on court.
Williams wore the compression suit, she said, because of her history of dangerous blood clots, which had continued after her daughter’s birth.
Even so, the French Tennis Association later determined she could no longer wear the outfit.
Other rule changes will include efforts to speed up play, with a 25-second shot clock between points to be introduced.
Players will also be permitted just one toilet break or change of attire per match, instead of the two allowed under existing rules.
“I’m not a big fan of the clock I have to say,” Johnston said.
“There’s so many variables if you’re playing, and the tour is all year round and often in hot countries, particularly outdoors.
“So if you’re in the middle of a long match, being back to play the next point after 25 seconds can actually be a little unrealistic if you’ve run around, hit 30 balls in a rally, and it’s been done more than once in the match.
“So I think the ultimate message here is we’re in the entertainment business, we have to have this continual flow, the continuous play to give the spectator and the fans some sort of ongoing show that’s very crisp and succinct and therefore more attractive.”