Of all the rules tweaks and changes for the WTA Tour in 2019, perhaps the more notorious one concerns the wearing of leggings.
That’s partly because of French Federation president Bernard Giudicelli’s comments about Serena Williams’s attire at the French Open. But it’s also because … well … attire is a bigger subject on the women’s tour than it is on the ATP Tour.
The WTA has gone all-in on leggings and what it calls “mid-thigh-length” compression shorts.
Contrary to public perception (and the notions of some chair umpires), the women always have been allowed to wear leggings.
And, indeed, many have worn compression shorts of that length.
Those shorts were major component of the Nike dresses at the US Open (although the compression shorts only went down to mid-thigh on the shorter players, and probably didn’t “officially” qualify on length).
But as of 2019, the women will be allowed to wear either of those two items without having to wear a skirt, shorts or a dress over them.
It’s unlikely that Williams will once again wear a catsuit to the French Open. That would be repetitive, and she’s anything but repetitiv. But it could make for some interesting fashion choices.
That is, of course, if the women (and their clothing sponsors) opt to push the envelope on that one.
Special ranking expansion
More crucial for 2019 are a significant number of small rules changes that will take a little pressure off when players return from long-term injuries. And, in fewer cases, when they return from having a baby.
The number of tournaments in which a player who’s been out more than a year can use her special protected ranking will now be 12. It had been eight. As well, if a player uses one of those 12 to enter a tournament but, when the tournament arrives six weeks later, she would have gotten in on her actual (improving) ranking, it won’t count as one of the 12.
Players ranked No. 375 or higher can apply for a special ranking. Previously, you had to be in the top 300. That threshold remains at No. 200 for doubles.
A player who plans to return in March, and had been automatically entered in Indian Wells or Miami, can pull out of either of those tournaments without being fined if she opts to play a WTA 125K or an ITF event during the second week of those events instead.
That sounds like a fairly specific clause that will apply to a limited number of players. So we’ll see if it actually comes into play. The player will still get a “zero-pointer” on her rankings calculation. But at least she’ll save a few bucks.
The “zero-pointer” rule also is softened somewhat. The returning player won’t have to wait until that tournament comes around 12 months later to erase the zero-pointer. As soon as she has 16 results on her record, she can begin replacing some of those zero-point results with other results.
Players also will now be allowed to freeze their special ranking twice, if there’s a re-occurrence of injury and they need a little more time.
Let’s call this another “Serena” rule.
While a player returning from injury/pregnancy won’t be seeded somewhere appropriate to their pre-absence ranking or special ranking, they will at least get somewhat of a break.
A player in that position will now be placed in the draw so that she doesn’t face a seeded player in the first round. (This also gives the seeded player a break, when you think about it). The special treatment can only be used in eight tournaments.
(We should note, though, that this rule has no effect on the Grand Slams, which continue to make their own judgments).
Three years to use the special ranking
Players off the tour for pregnancy/maternity leave/injury have three years to use their special ranking.
For the women having babies, that period begins on the day the child is born. For injured players, the start date is the date of the last tournament played.
A special ranking for adoption, surrogacy or legal guardianship must be used within two years. The special ranking in that case begins on the date of the player’s last tournament.
Late withdrawals and lucky losers
As has been instituted on the ATP Tour, the WTA will give players the opportunity to withdraw late from a tournament – between the start of qualifying and their first scheduled match.
Those withdrawals must be on site. But the players will receive 100 per cent of first-round prize money.
The lucky losers who get into the draw as a result can benefit – if they can win a round.
If the lucky loser does down in the first round, she receives final-round qualifying prize money (so, no benefit). But if she can win a round, or more, she would get that qualifying prize money, plus whatever money she earns for reaching that round in the tournament. From that subtotal, whatever was paid to the player who originally withdrew will be subtracted.
This rule can only be applied twice per season to any player (and not in two consecutive tournaments). And the player must have played a tournament during the previous 60 days. So she can’t use it as an opportunity to earn some money if she has not already legitimately returned from an injury break.
The players also can’t play doubles if they use this rule to pull out of singles. And if it’s a mandatory tournament, the “zero-point” rule would still apply.
Rushing the players
Players will now only be able to take a toilet/change of attire break once per match.
That is, unless they can get there and back within the two-minute set break limit – i.e. the restroom is nice and close.
It’s unclear if the women will be subject to the 1-5-1 rule at every event going forward. It’s more likely it will be in place at tournaments where the serve clock will now be mandatory.
The 1 (prep) – 5 (warmup) – 1 (start play) rule was something that made the entire process look so rushed at the US Open last fall.
The players had one minute upon arrival on court to get to the net for the coin toss. They were scrambling and began their matches unnecessarily stressed out. With all of the time wasting that goes on (far less on the women’s side than the men, we should note) it remains one of the pointless, more unnecessary changes that has been pushed though.
The first violation of the rule is a warning. After that, the fine will be set at $250.
This summer, when the 1-5-1 rule was used during the US Open series and the big event itself, the fine for a second offence was a serve fault (or a point penalty, if it was the receiver who wasn’t ready). It’s not 100 per cent clear, but it appears the violations of this rule will only incur monetary penalties now.
Which sort of takes the teeth out of it.
The WTA has matched what the ATP has already announced about the serve clocks on court. They will be mandatory at the Premier level for 2019, and optional at the International and 125K tournaments. By 2020, the serve clocks will be required equipment at all WTA tournaments.
The “Genie Bouchard” rule
Starting in 2019, the doubling of wild-card eligibility because of 10 years’ length of service time will have one of its loopholes shut down.
For a “year” to count, the player now must have played six tournaments. At the moment, just one WTA event is enough for make a year eligible for service time under the wild-card rule.
The “one event” criteria allowed Canadian Genie Bouchard to benefit from twice the allowed limit of three wild cards per season.
And, as is often the case with these types of things, there was plenty of grousing behind the scenes about that.
Bouchard played one match in the qualifying at the Rogers Cup in Montreal in 2008, a 6-3, 6-4 loss to American Abigail Spears. She was just 14 at the time. And that started the clock.
She did the same in 2009 and 2010. Bouchard played three (Canada, Quebec City and D.C.) in 2011.
So, had the new criteria been in force, Bouchard would have had just six years’ of service in terms of the wild-card rule. Thus, she would have been limited to the usual three wild cards during the 2018 season. And she wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the rule (if she needed it) until 2022.
The new expanded limit only begins counting as of the 2019 season, though. So, if Bouchard needs or is offered more than three wild cards, she can still take advantage of it.