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Serena's No. 1 -- but should she even be playing?

Order is restored: Serena Williams' second-round victory at the China Open on Tuesday ensured that she will reclaim the No. 1 spot when the world rankings come out next week. Williams will supplant Dinara Safina, the flailing, tragicomical figure whose on-court implosions (and self-flagellations) became increasingly difficult to watch as her 25-week reign at No. 1 went on. Serena needed to outperform Safina in Beijing to take over the top spot, and the hapless Russian complied by surrendering to a 226th-ranked wild card in the second round. It was a miserable loss that might put Safina temporarily out of her misery, in that it suspends discussions about whether the 23-year-old is worthy of the No. 1 ranking.

Serena's ascendance is merely a technicality; there was no question that she was already the best female player on the planet. She has won three of the past five Grand Slams to bring her career total to 11. Her dominance of Safina in the final of this year's Australian Open was so comprehensive that the Russian, reduced to tears on the court, was struggling to win points, let alone games. But while for now the infamous reign of the meltdown-prone Safina is, mercifully, over, it is Serena's notorious U.S. Open meltdown that begs the question -- should she even be playing?

I witnessed that shocking and dreadful scene on Arthur Ashe Stadium last month, when a lineswoman's foot-fault call -- and Serena's appalling reaction to it -- transformed what had been a compelling, high-quality women's semifinal into an ugly spectacle. There is no doubt that it was a tough call -- I think even the most even-tempered player would have been justified in losing her composure after being foot-faulted on a second serve, down a set, 5-6, 15-30 in a Grand Slam semifinal. But it was the nature of Serena's reaction that was troubling and, frankly, a little scary. Brandishing her racket pointedly like a fencer on the attack, she delivered the profane tirade -- "I swear to God, I'll [expletive] take this ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat," was the most malicious line -- with a hostile and menacing posture.

Regardless of whether Serena's toe crossed the line on that second serve, her behavior certainly did. But the issue of appropriate punishment for that kind of outburst is controversial. Her supporters argued that white men like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors used to get away with worse, and that harsh judgments of Serena's behavior smack of sexism or racism. Her conduct in the immediate aftermath of the outburst certainly didn't earn her any sympathy. She displayed an utter lack of contrition at her news conference following the match, and then bungled her apology such that she needed to issue two statements in the ensuing days, the second one clarifying that she had indeed intended to apologize in the first.

The day after the semifinals, the U.S. Open referee fined Williams $10,000, the maximum amount that can be assessed on site, for unsportsmanlike conduct. (She also was fined $500 for racket abuse earlier in the semifinal match.) Much stiffer penalties could be on their way: The Grand Slam committee, an independent body composed of representatives of the four Grand Slam tournaments and the International Tennis Federation, opened an investigation of whether Serena committed a "player major offense" at the Open, and could ultimately fine her the $560,000 in prize money she won at this year's tournament and/or suspend her from a future Grand Slam event.

The problem is that the process, as outlined in Article V of the Grand Slam rulebook, takes awhile. The player being investigated is given time to present evidence on his or her behalf, and the committee is given time to review and amend the decision made by its administrator, Bill Babcock. If the player is, in fact, found guilty of an offense, he or she may then appeal.

All of which presents a public relations conundrum for WTA Tour leadership. Stacey Allaster, the tour's chairman and CEO, issued a statement the day after Serena's meltdown condemning her conduct as "inappropriate and unprofessional" and supporting the disciplinary action (the $10,500 fine) the USTA had taken. But no one made a motion to immediately suspend Serena. U.S. Open officials could have banned her from the rest of the tournament, but there she was, back on Arthur Ashe 36 hours after the fact, winning the women's doubles title with her sister Venus. The WTA could have suspended her from this week's tournament in Beijing, but once again, here she is, reclaiming the No. 1 ranking even as the committee deliberates over her punishment.

The China Open is one of four tournaments the WTA made mandatory as part of its 2009 "Roadmap," a system designed to incentivize participation in non-Grand Slam events for the tour's top players, none of whom have been more selective in terms of competitive schedule than the Williamses. I'm sure the tour was loath to bar Serena from an event in which she is technically required to participate. Nor would the China Open organizers want Serena, the biggest star in the women's game, to be missing from their event. But the timing is unfortunate: Serena is being celebrated for her on-court achievements while the Grand Slam committee's investigation is pending. Might we receive two contradictory press releases next week -- one from the WTA, hailing her official ascension to No. 1 in the rankings, and one from the Grand Slam committee, announcing that she's been suspended from the 2010 Australian Open?

"The tour always has the right to discipline any member for conduct on or off the court, but we defer to the Grand Slams for misconduct at their own events," Andrew Walker, the WTA's vice president for communications, said Wednesday. It's not the WTA's fault that the GSC's disciplinary process takes so long. But in opting not to suspend Williams, the tour is in the awkward position of having to commend her for what she has accomplished in Beijing, even while we wait for the outcome of the GSC's investigation.

This doesn't happen in sports with single governing bodies. Roberto Alomar spits in the face of an umpire? Major League Baseball suspends and fines him immediately. Albert Haynesworth uses his cleats to perform dermabrasion on another player's face? The National Football League suspends him for five games without pay. Justice is applied swiftly, and then everyone moves on. Serena's behavior wasn't nearly as egregious as Haynesworth's or Alomar's, but it's discomfiting to see her out on the court, smiling and making the No. 1 sign, when we know she might eventually be forced to take a seat.