Why Serena Williams Is Unseeded At French Open

May 28, 2018
Originally published on May 28, 2018 7:58 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The French Open tennis championship is underway in Paris - clay courts, check, Rafael Nadal defending champ, check, Venus and Serena Williams, check. But hang on. Serena Williams has added a new title to her resume since she last played a major tournament. That title is mom. And when she steps onto the court tomorrow, she will be unseeded. Joining us to talk about that is Courtney Nguyen, senior writer for WTA Insider. She's in Paris at the tournament. And she joins us via Skype. Hey, Courtney.

COURTNEY NGUYEN: Hello.

KELLY: Hey. So the backdrop here - Serena Williams last played a major in 2017. That was the Australian Open, which she won. She's taken off the next four majors while she was pregnant and then on maternity leave. She's back now, and her current world ranking is 453rd in the world. How does that work?

NGUYEN: Well, yes, it's definitely odd to see any triple digit next to Serena Williams's name given her accomplishments over the course of her career. But the WTA rankings, as well as the ATP rankings, are a 12-month kind of mathematical calculation. And it depends on 12 months' worth of results.

KELLY: We can hear some of the announcements going on behind you as this tournament plays out. Why does that even matter whether she's seeded or not? Explain how that affects her chances.

NGUYEN: Sure. I mean, seeding basically allows you a little bit of protection in the draw. You're a top 32 seed. You don't face another top 32 player until the earliest in the third round. So theoretically, it means that the top 32 seeds, they have a slightly easier draw early in the first week. That's definitely beneficial to top players, in particular, who can kind of save their energy, maybe play theoretically easier matches to get deeper into the tournament - and allows a tournament as well with the seedings to kind of protect their tournament, make sure that the top players are still playing in the second week. You know, it helps for marketing and all these sorts of things. And you theoretically avoid the first-round, second-round upset.

KELLY: Well, some people are raising questions. Is this a mom being penalized for being pregnant and taking maternity leave and then not able to return to the job in the way that she was doing it before?

NGUYEN: That's really where the discussion is sitting right now. It's something that's been hotly debated amongst the player council. This is a rule that has applied to everyone. Kim Clijsters, for example, came back, you know, years ago. And she won the U.S. Open in her third tournament back coming back after having a child. She was unseeded. She was actually unranked at the time. It happened also to Victoria Azarenka who's won two major titles, former number one. She came back last year at Wimbledon, was unseeded at Wimbledon. And now it's happening with Serena. But I think that because it's Serena obviously - and people think, OK, she's the best player in the world. How is she not number one? That's where, you know, everyone's kind of having a bit of a tizzy over.

KELLY: Well, setting aside the seeding debate for the moment, is there a possibility that a player ranked - whether you like it or not - 453rd in the world could win a Grand Slam?

NGUYEN: Well, Serena Williams has done it before. The last time she was unseeded at a Slam was the 2007 Australian Open. She came in, won the whole gosh darn thing. This is going to be her first Grand Slam since she won the Australian Open last year - only has played two other tournaments this year both in North America - in Indian Wells and Miami - played OK, not great. But she comes into the French Open without having played any clay court lead-up events. So she's a big mystery at the moment. I saw her practice a little bit here at Roland Garros. She looks good. But what Serena needs is just matches to be able to play her way into this tournament. So her chances - I think that she's on everybody's list of a potential champion here at Roland Garros because we just know how good Serena can be when she plays at the Slams.

KELLY: Courtney Nguyen, senior writer for WTA Insider, reporting there from the French Open in Paris. Courtney, thanks so much.

NGUYEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.