CINCINNATI -- Was that a collective sigh of relief going up through the women's field as Serena Williams collected the title at the Rogers Cup in Toronto last week? The signal that Williams is back to her intimidating best was bad news for the opposition, but her move back up to No. 31 in the rankings brings welcome peace of mind for the rest of the high-ranked competition.
It means Williams is in position to be seeded when the U.S. Open begins in two weeks' time.
But it's limited security at best. Although the luck of the draw always plays a role, a seeding of No. 31 means she could face the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova or Petra Kvitova as early as the third round. With only four events on her record after nearly a year off, Williams will take some time to work her way back up the rankings. Winning the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati this week likely would take her inside the top 16, but not much higher, meaning that she could still meet, say, Clijsters, in a fourth-round match.
In essence, whatever her ranking going into the tournament, it will not be as high as she stands in people's minds. Whatever happens this week, as long as she's healthy, Williams will go in as a favorite to capture her 14th major with a win at Flushing Meadows.
Should the USTA, for the sake of greater predictability and fairness, break with the rankings and seed her where she belongs?
"I would be totally OK with that," world No. 9 Marion Bartoli said, laughing, after losing to Williams last month at the Bank of the West event at Stanford. "I won't be the one complaining, who says, 'Well, she's taking my seeding spot,' or whatever."
But the question of where Williams should be placed is far from simple. All the Grand Slams reserve the right to adjust their seedings, but according to WTA records, none except Wimbledon has made unilateral changes to the women's side in at least the past 15 years. Deviating from the rankings can be seen as unfair to players who have earned their positions with their results over the past year, and even Wimbledon almost never moves players more than one seeding range (from Nos. 32-24 to Nos. 23-17, for example, or from Nos. 16-9 to Nos. 1-8, which affect what level of seeds players face in various rounds).
"She's won it so many times, I think it would be OK to seed her [higher than her ranking]," said Wozniacki, who will be the top seed at the U.S. Open. "It's tough to say what seeding. I mean, you'll get people talking -- too high, too low."
Are there any options that avoid accusations of being arbitrary or giving special treatment? A few possibilities:
No. 2: When entries for the U.S. Open closed four weeks ago, Williams was ranked far too low to even get into the main draw. As a result, she entered using her injury protected ranking -- a provision made for players returning from injury that allows them to use the ranking they had before getting hurt. And what is Williams' injury protected ranking? No. 1, of course -- she had just won Wimbledon and was in the top spot when she mysteriously cut her feet on glass in a restaurant last year.
So the USTA could use the ranking Williams technically entered the tournament with, making her joint No. 1 with Wozniacki. That effectively means the No. 2 seed, since Wozniacki would take precedence as the rankings-determined No. 1. Sound a little unconventional? Not at all, as a recent look back by WTA staff shows. It's exactly what Open officials did in 1996, when Monica Seles, returning after her stabbing, was given a special ranking of No. 1 and seeded No. 2 at the U.S. Open behind rankings No. 1 Steffi Graf.
That might have been an exceptional case, but it's not the only time. Previous WTA rules allowed the tour to grant a top player a special ranking for eight tournaments a comeback, and Williams herself was seeded No. 3 in 2004 despite a world ranking of No. 11 at the time. Similar adjustments were made for Graf in 1998 and Lindsay Davenport in 2002.
The special ranking is no more, but the USTA has the discretion to seed Williams using her protected ranking instead.
Unfortunately, such nimble moves are unlikely -- but it would certainly better reflect how the field actually stands.
Nos. 12-16: When determining men's seedings, Wimbledon uses a formula that takes into account both rankings and a player's grass-court results. If the U.S. Open used a similar system based on a player's U.S. Open Series results and applied it to both men and women, Williams' victories at Stanford and Toronto probably would take her into the 12-16 seeding range (precise calculation is difficult because all players' standings would be affected). A title in Cincinnati would take her even higher, although cracking the top eight might be out of reach unless a higher-ranked player pulls out.
Going to a seeding formula isn't really possible at this late stage, but it might be something to think about for future years.
No. 31: This is where Williams currently stands, plus any gains she makes with her result in Cincinnati. And that's where Williams is likely to stay seeded, based on the USTA's recent history of following the rankings. But it's hardly her place.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.