Good-girl Serena back in business

NEW YORK -- Serena Williams does not look like a woman tiptoeing around on not-so-secret probation.

She checked out of the tournament in Cincinnati a few weeks ago (complaining of a sore toe) to attend Kim Kardashian's Los Angeles wedding. Last Thursday she appeared at a Hamptons magazine party with sister Venus wearing a breathtaking black catsuit -- with sporty, sheer side panels -- that left little to the imagination.

Since returning after a year away from the game, she has bludgeoned her fellow professionals, winning 17 of 19 matches, including her first-round match of this U.S. Open on Tuesday night -- her first visit to Arthur Ashe Stadium since a memorable, racket-waving, f-bomb-laced meltdown in a semifinal loss to Kim Clijsters.

For two years, since that incendiary outburst at lineswoman Shino Tsurubuchi, who called a questionable foot fault -- tennis players rarely threaten to shove a ball down someone's throat -- she has been watched closely by the Grand Slam committee.

For two more weeks, six more matches, she must toe the line, so to speak, and avoid a "major offense" that would trigger her expulsion from next year's U.S. Open and an additional $92,500 fine. She has missed three of the eight majors that constituted the suspension period, but in the four-plus she has played her on-court behavior has been exemplary.

Bill Babcock, director of the Grand Slam committee, was the one who recommended that Serena, who had no previous episodes, escape a suspension. Instead, the committee hit her with an $82,500 fine -- an all-time record.

Babcock has been impressed with her comportment.

"There's no reason," he said Tuesday, "to believe it will be repeated."

Her return to the scene of the crime has sparked predictable interest in the media. Serena, in her 14th season as a professional, saw it coming and developed a strategy of sarcasm for her first news conference Monday.

Asked what she remembered most from her last U.S. Open, Serena smiled vaguely and asked coyly, "You mean in the singles or doubles?"

Uh, singles, Serena.

"I just remembered I lost, and that was that," she said. "I got really popular. A lot of people were telling me they thought I was super cool, that they'd never seen me so intense.

"So yeah, it was awesome."

Yeah, awesome. The second question on the subject was swatted away with a force reminiscent of one of her lethal forehands.

"I don't know," Serena said. "I don't think about it. Are you still thinking about it? Oh, my God, that was like two years ago.

"This is like two years later."

So it is. Serena crushed Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski 6-1, 6-1.

The way she's been playing, the only one in this 128-player draw who can beat her is … Serena. To take it a step further, where would women's tennis be right now without her?

Clijsters has been injured this season and says she is about to step away for a second retirement and have a second child. Maria Sharapova, whose serve continues to be a day-to-day adventure, nearly lost in the first round to a British teenager. Venus? She's 31 years old and has played 11 matches in eight months. Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion, and French Open champion Li Na are, inexplicably, already out.

Serena, who turns 30 next month, is unquestionably the best player of her generation. This U.S. Open title would be her 14th Grand Slam championship, a formidable number. But is she the best ever? Australian Margaret Court Smith won 24 majors between 1960 and 1973. Steffi Graf won 22, followed on the all-time list by Helen Wills Moody (19), Martina Navratilova (18) and Chris Evert (18). That leaves Serena No. 6, trailing Navratilova and Evert by five. By another measure, titles, Serena's 39 are 128 fewer than Navratilova, 115 fewer than Evert and 68 fewer than Graf.

Evert, an analyst for ESPN, says Serena is "right up there" with Navratilova and Graf.

The Williams sisters, with all their injuries over the years, have cornered the market on comebacks. But amid the tweaked ankles and wrists, the sprained knees and throbbing shoulders, this one would be the most remarkable.

Serena had two surgeries on her right foot after slicing an important tendon in a restaurant accident. Then she weathered a bout of blood clots in her lungs followed by a hematoma in her stomach that was removed with another surgery.

Some have wondered if reports of what she termed a "near deathbed" experience have been exaggerated to fit into Serena's larger-than-life life. Her father, Richard, who said he spent a great deal of time by Serena's hospital bed in Los Angeles, says no.

"Thought I might lose her," he said Monday. "I'm happy that's she's alive and can still play tennis.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.