Serena Williams has described the new changes to the ‘Special Ranking’ rule introduced by the WTA for 2019 as “great” and believes the move will encourage more players to take a break from the tour to have children then come back to resume their careers.
Under the new rules, returning mothers who have a special ranking that would earn them a seeded position can be drawn as an ‘additional seed’, meaning they would not be able to face a seed in the opening round of a tournament. This change also ensures that no seed will get bumped as a result of a returning mother given a protected seeding.
Williams, along with other mothers on tour like former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, had been advocating for such rule changes that would ease the transition back for players following the birth of their children.
“I think it’s great,” Williams said of the new rule changes during a press conference in Abu Dhabi ahead of an exhibition match against her sister Venus on Thursday.
“Women that are younger can go out there and have kids and not have to worry about it and not have to wait ‘til the twilight of their years to have children and I think it’s a really great rule.
The 37-year-old American had her daughter Alexis Olympia in September 2017 and returned to the WTA circuit last March at Indian Wells.
“I think having gone through the experience myself really opened my eyes up to me and, ‘Would have I done it sooner had there been different rule changes?’ I don’t know. But now that there is an opportunity, people don’t have to ask that question anymore,” added Williams, who is currently ranked 16 in the world.
“I think it’s a great rule change. I think it is a lot. But I feel like it’s just something that’s always going to be there and be special and I’m happy that they did it.”
The Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi will be Williams’ first on-court appearance since she lost the US Open final to Naomi Osaka in September amid a wave of controversy that resulted from her outburst at chair umpire Carlos Ramos, whom she accused of sexism.
“I’m feeling good. I’ve been training for a couple of months now and I’m getting ready for the new year,” the 23-time Grand Slam champion said in the UAE capital.
* Provided by AFP
The end of December is a festive season for everyone around the globe but for tennis players, it’s the time of the year where they wrap up their preseason training blocks, pack their bags and get ready to get back to work.
For Abu Dhabi, this period sees the emirate welcome some of the world’s best players to the courts of Zayed Sports City for the annual Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
A marquee lineup features in this weekend’s 11th edition of the tournament, which will witness the return of superstars like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, and the debut of others like Venus Williams and Karen Khachanov.
Here are some of the main storylines surrounding the players that will light up the UAE capital from December 27-29, as they prepare for the 2019 tennis season.
SERENA’S FIRST APPEARANCE SINCE US OPEN
The 37-year-old Serena will continue her search for an all-time record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title in 2019 and will once again grace the stadium at the International Tennis Centre at Zayed Sports City to put the finishing touches to her game ahead of the New Year.
A mother to 16-month old daughter Olympia, Serena returned to the tennis tour from maternity leave last March at Indian Wells and has since risen to 16 in the world rankings. She contested just seven events in 2018, reaching two Grand Slam finals in the process, at Wimbledon and the US Open.
The American’s US Open ended in controversy as she had a standoff with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who gave her a game penalty during her final defeat to Naomi Osaka. Serena accused Ramos of sexism and has not played a tournament since.
Abu Dhabi will be Serena’s first on-court appearance since New York and she’ll be taking on her sister Venus on Thursday (20:00 local time).
Can Serena tie Margaret Court’s record in 2019? How much will she play throughout the season? Does she regret any of her actions during that infamous final? Those are just some of the burning questions surrounding her return to action.
The world No. 2, who lifted the trophy in Abu Dhabi on four previous occasions, shut down his 2018 season early due to injury concerns. Nadal retired from matches at two of the four Grand Slams in 2018, suffering from a psoas injury at the Australian Open, and knee problems at the US Open. He also underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his ankle to remove an intra-articular loose body in November.
The Spaniard is set to make his first appearance since his US Open semi-final retirement against Juan Marti del Potro in the UAE capital this weekend, opening his campaign against either Kevin Anderson or Chung Hyeon on Friday.
Once again, one of the biggest challenges facing Nadal in 2019 will be his fitness. His issues this year didn’t stop him from winning a 17th major last June though, where he picked up a record-extending 11th French Open crown.
The second half of the 2018 season saw Novak Djokovic recapture his form and add two more majors to his tally, which has now hit 14. After undergoing elbow surgery in February and dropping to as low as 22 in May, the Serb got back to the top of the rankings and lost just three matches since June. He’ll be looking to carry his momentum into 2019 and could become the most successful man in Australian Open history if he manages to win a seventh Melbourne title next month.
Djokovic faces either Khachanov or Dominic Thiem in his Abu Dhabi opener on Friday.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Novak Djokovic (@djokernole) on
VENUS SANS WITT
Following a successful 2017, which she ended as the WTA’s prize money leader, thanks to her two runner-up showings at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Venus had a rough 2018 and slipped to No. 38 in the rankings. She ended her 11-year collaboration with her coach David Witt during the offseason and has yet to announce his replacement. The 38-year-old hasn’t played since a lopsided US Open third round defeat to her sister Serena on August 31.
The Williams Sisters are on their way to Abu Dhabi. (from Venus’ Instastory) 😍😀 pic.twitter.com/nwjPPnk0c2
— LaWanda (@lawanda50) December 26, 2018
World No. 8 Dominic Thiem will be hoping he can go one step further in 2019 and secure a first major after losing the Roland Garros final to Nadal last June. The Austrian, who takes on Khachanov in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, is in search of a traveling coach after parting ways with Galo Blanco (who took up a new position with Kosmos Tennis) to help him alongside his main coach Gunter Bresnik.
“Gunter will always be the main person and if I’m looking for a second coach who is giving me company at some tournaments, I’ve tried it, he was a player, that’s pretty important, and maybe had a similar game to me and he can improve me in some parts. But it can be basically anybody, I’m not that difficult,” Thiem told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
NEW TERRITORY FOR KHACHANOV
A stunning run to the Paris Masters title at the end of the 2018 season helped Khachanov reach a career-high ranking of No. 11. The 22-year-old Russian defeated four top-10 opponents, including Djokovic, en route to his first Masters 1000 trophy and takes lots of self belief from his triumph over the Serb.
“Of course I can take something from that, that brought me to No. 11 in the world. But this is a new season, you have to start from zero like everybody and you have to again prove that you are good and you have to get these results. Of course I’m feeling confident right now but everything starts from zero,” said Khachanov on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Khachanov faces Thiem, who was not surprised by his rival’s run in Paris.
“For me it was only a question of time until he really made his breakthrough because he has no weaknesses actually, he is a big tall player with very fast and powerful strokes. I think he was achieving a little bit too little all year and then he finished as No. 11, which is amazing, he won the Masters 1000, that’s where he belongs I think, and I’m almost 100 per cent sure that during 2019 we’ll see him in the top-10,” Thiem said of Khachanov.
CHUNG’S AUSSIE CHALLENGE
South Korea’s Chung Hyeon made waves last January when he reached the Australian Open semis, taking out Djokovic along the way. He followed that up with back-to-back quarter-finals appearances in Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami but injuries interrupted his momentum and he had to miss two and a half months of action, which meant he skipped the French Open and Wimbledon. The 22-year-old says staying healthy is his main priority for 2019. He will face a tough test in Melbourne next month as he attempts to defend his semi-final points there.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) December 26, 2018
ANDERSON’S TITLE DEFENCE
Anderson started his last season by winning the MWTC title in Abu Dhabi which set the tone for his most successful year to date. The South African hit a career-high ranking of No. 5 in July, after reaching the final at Wimbledon, where he came back from two sets down to defeat Federer en route. He also won the New York Open and the Erste Bank Open in Vienna in 2018 and qualified for his first ATP Finals. He had a shorter than usual offseason as a result but says he’s feeling ready for his title defence in the capital.
“The biggest thing was to recover and get the body healthy and everything feels really good. There’s always a few things you’re working on, on the court, movement, returns and some stuff at the net but all in all things are feeling really good and I’m really excited to get on the court this week,” he said of what he worked on the most during his preseason training block.
Kevin Anderson admits it’s “weird” having a different set of rules for the final set at each of the four Grand Slams but believes playing a first-to-10 points tiebreak at the Australian Open won’t be that different to contesting a regular seven-point one.
The Australian Open announced recently that a final-set tiebreak will be introduced to the 2019 edition in an effort to limit the length of matches.
But instead of implementing a regular first-to-seven points tiebreak, the Melbourne showpiece have decided on a first-to-10 points format, to be played at 6-all in the final set.
The news came on the heels of Wimbledon’s announcement earlier this year regarding the introduction of final-set tiebreaks to be contested at 12-all in the fifth set for men’s matches and third set for the women.
The US Open has a regular final-set tiebreak played at 6-all, while the French Open follows a win-by-two-games format for the final sets of its matches.
The latest changes mean that players will have to adapt playing under different final set rules at each of the four majors.
“It is kind of weird, and interesting I guess. Each one is different,” sixth-ranked Anderson told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday ahead of the start of his title defence at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC).
“I’m sure French Open will change it at some point in time. And it will be interesting to see how progress is the next few years. They’re just trying to be a bit unique in their own ways when it comes to what they’re doing in the fifth-setters but I don’t think it’s going to make that big of a difference as long as it’s not an endless [set], where it keeps going on and on.”
The Australian Open said the decision to opt for a 10-point tiebreak was based on “the most extensive consultation in the tournament’s history”.
“We went with a 10-point tiebreak at six-games-all in the final set to ensure the fans still get a special finale to these often epic contests, with the longer tiebreak still then allowing for that one final twist or change of momentum in the contest. This longer tiebreak also can lessen some of the serving dominance that can prevail in the shorter tiebreak,” explained Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley.
Anderson doesn’t think the change in length of the tiebreak will affect the players much.
“At the end of the day they’re realising that just having a full long fifth set is not the ideal situation and it just seems like they maybe just trying to be a little bit different. Whether it’s 10 or seven I don’t think makes any difference at all,” said the South African.
“I think a normal tiebreaker would have been fine but I think it’s a little interesting take of making it first to 10. Just like Wimbledon going to 12-all as opposed to just keeping it at 6-all, I think it would have been fine just having it in the normal set-up but I think it’s still a good step forward reducing the long five-setters.”
World No. 11 Karen Khachanov, who makes his MWTC debut against Dominic Thiem on Thursday, also weighed in on the subject.
“It’s a little bit different… that they cannot maybe negotiate and make one rule for all the tournaments but on the other side it makes a little bit of difference between all of them so we have to try to adjust how to play,” said the Russian.
“I don’t know if it’s easier or tougher because at the end you’re playing with an opponent, you don’t play just alone on the court. He has the same conditions, he has the same rules, so it’s the same for both guys, so it doesn’t matter if it’s up to seven or up to 10 or up to five, it will be the same thing.”
The 11th edition of the MWTC kicks off with three matches on Thursday.
4pm (local time): Kevin Anderson v Chung Hyeon
6pm: Dominic Thiem v Karen Khachanov
8pm: Serena Williams v Venus Williams