Serena Williams is seeded 17th at the US Open.
Serena Williams is seeded 17th at the US Open.

The ‘absolute joke’ that cost Serena No. 1 ranking

ESPN analyst and former renowned coach/player Brad Gilbert ripped the WTA for being a "joke'' in not having a kinder maternity-leave protection on rankings for returning mothers such as Serena Williams.

The topic was raised as the 36-year-old mother gets ready for her first U.S. Open since giving birth last September, when she missed the tournament.

On Wednesday, the USTA bumped up Williams to the 17th seed, though her WTA ranking is just 26. Williams had returned to action in late December at a Dubai exhibition after an 11-month lay-off. The nine-spot lift prevents Williams from facing a top-eight seed in the third round. However, she still is slated to face a player in the top 16.

"I blame the WTA,'' Gilbert said on Wednesday's ESPN conference call to promote its U.S. Open coverage. "I think it's an absolute joke what they've done, and they should be embarrassed that they don't have anything - injuries are different from somebody coming off of maternity leave. I think that she should have come back after her absence with the protected ranking of No. 1.''

In a protracted debate, Chris Evert insisted on the call that maternity leave is the same as being injured, for which there also is no major seeding protection.

"I hate to disagree with you, Chrissie, but I honestly don't think it's the same as being injured,'' Gilbert said. "I felt like she should have come back for eight tournaments with a protected ranking and seeded ranking of No. 1, not just Serena, whoever. Whenever you come back after maternity leave, if you were 8, you should be 8.''

The policy now for women's players coming back from long injuries or maternity leave is they receive "a special ranking'' upon their return that grants them admission into certain tournaments, but cannot be used for seeding.

In other words, Williams needed to use her "special ranking'' to qualify for Wimbledon's main draw and not having to go through qualifiers. Williams was ranked 187 entering the grass-court Grand Slam in July.

In any event, Gilbert and Evert agreed the Open did the right thing by the seed bump. Evert said the tournament was "fair'' in lifting her seed, even though she's in a mini slump this August after romping to the Wimbledon final in stunning fashion.

Gilbert said he doesn't feel as strongly for major rankings projection for injuries.

"I will put the distinction, an injury is different, because in work, if you're having a baby, they make provisions for when you have a baby and you come back,'' Gilbert said.

"I don't understand why the women's association doesn't draw a distinction between being injured and having a baby. It is something that really needs to be looked at a lot closer for this to happen in the future."

Williams' tune-ups or the U.S. Open have gone poorly. After the 6-1, 6-0 thrashing in the first round in San Jose against Johanna Konta, she shut it down in Montreal. She returned last week in Cincinnati and was defeated in the second-round Petra Kvitova in three sets.

Evert said Williams showed promise in Cincinnati and Las Vegas still has the 23-time Grand Slam winner as the betting favourite at 4-1 - though her all-important draw won't be known until Thursday.

"She does have a lot of confidence on that court, playing in front of a U.S. crowd,'' Evert said. "She played a very on-form Kvitova last week. I didn't really feel like that was a failure for her."

"Never underestimate Williams,'' Gilbert added. "It's like two tournaments. If she can get through the first week, get some confidence going into the second week, she becomes a different player.''