By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) – Serena Williams says Nike has learned from its mistake after the sporstwear giant changed its policy having faced criticism for freezing sponsorship payments to several pregnant athletes.
Nike said on Friday that it would waive performance-pay reductions for 12 months for athletes who have a baby and said it could do more.
Sponsorship agreements with athletes typically include clauses that reduce payments if they do not reach performance-based targets.
“I understand that Nike has been really lately supporting women a lot, and it started with making a statement with me, and they said they want to make a change,” Williams told reporters after she overcame a wobbly start to beat Russia’s Vitalia Diatchenko 2-6 6-1 6-0 in the French Open first round.
“They want to support women that want to have families and that want to be moms. I’m glad that statement was made, and I know that therefore and going forward, they’re doing better.
“That’s what it’s about. It’s about learning from mistakes and doing better,” added Williams, one of Nike’s leading athletes.
The New York Times reported that Williams’s sponsorship deal was kept intact during her pregnancy which, according to the 23-times Grand Slam singles champion, was already proof of their support of pregnant women.
“I feel like as time goes on, as technology changes and as, you know, the world changes, people realize that we have to change our policies,” the American added.
“We have to look at old policies and change them. And I think that Nike wanted to do that, and they started doing that.
“And so I think they made a really bold statement by doing that with me, and I think they’re going to — I know, actually, that they’re going to continue to make that statement.”
Williams is no stranger to making statements and on Monday she entered Court Philippe Chatrier wearing an outfit marked with four French words: Mere, Championne, Reine, Deesse (Mother, Champion, Queen, Goddess).
It was her arm that did the talking, however, after a shaky start.
The 10th-seeded American peppered the court with unforced errors in an ugly opening set before finding her range to set up a meeting with Japan’s Kurumi Nara or Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic.
“I’m just happy to win today,” the American said after her 800th tour-level victory.
The three-times Roland Garros champion is looking to emulate Margaret Court, who claimed 24 majors spread across the amateur and professional eras.
Williams’s haul started at the U.S. Open 20 years ago but she has not won a major since she beat her older sister Venus in the Australian Open final in 2017.
She produced a see-saw display in an half-empty stadium on Monday, struggling to adapt to windy conditions in chilly weather.
Diatchenko broke in the fifth game with a crosscourt backhand winner to open a 3-2 lead, and won on her opponent’s serve again in the seventh game to secure the opening set.
Then Williams fired up the engine and raced to a 3-0 lead in the second set, losing only one more game as Diatchenko faded away.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)