LONDON (Reuters) - Already struggling in the shadows of a men's game enjoying a golden era, the women's tennis authorities face a dilemma after another high-profile Serena Williams rant at officialdom.
For the second time in two years the American three-times champion blew a fuse at the U.S. Open, launching a tirade at chair umpire Eva Asderaki after being docked a point for yelling "Come on!" during a rally in the final against Australia's Samantha Stosur.
While the language was less agricultural than two years ago when Williams threatened bodily harm to a female line judge in the semi-final against Kim Clijsters on the same Arthur Ashe stadium, the menacing tone of her remarks could spell trouble for the 29-year-old.
Her 2009 rant, when she was docked a penalty point that effectively handed the match to Clijsters by default, led to her being whacked with an $82,500 fine and being put on "probation" for two years with the threat that she could be suspended for any repeat performance.
"Any impact this code violation might have on Serena Williams' grand slam probation would require the incident being ruled a major event," a WTA statement said. "That determination will be made by the grand slam committee director."
The evidence, heard by viewers all over the world, was pretty damning.
After an initial blast at Asderaki following the decision to dock her a point to trail 1-0 in the second set, Williams went back to work with a vengeance at the next changeover after a brief revival during her surprise 6-2 6-3 defeat.
"If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way, because you're out of control," Williams said in her chair.
"You're totally out of control. You're a hater, unattractive inside. Who would do such a thing? And I never complain. Wow, what a loser.
"Give me a code violation because I expressed my emotion? We're in America last time I checked. Really, don't even look at me, don't look my way."
Williams showed no contrition for her behavior after the match, although she was gracious in defeat and chatted amiably with her opponent before the presentations.
The WTA would appear to be perfectly within its rights to punish the 13-times grand champion.
At the same time, however, they know that Serena's return in June from a career-threatening foot injury and subsequent life-threatening blood clots, has been an enormous boost for a women's game struggling for a figurehead.
World number one Caroline Wozniacki is yet to win a grand slam title while the likes of Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and any number of eastern European baseliners fail to capture the imagination of the wider public.
Li Na's French Open triumph was a major breakthrough for the game's appeal in Asia, but despite losing to an inspired Stosur, a 100 percent fit Williams is still the yardstick for the women's game.
Her near 12-month absence from the sport left a huge void and any ban, just when she looks to be back to something approaching her best, could be bad for business especially with the American in the hunt to qualify for the end-of-year championships being staged in Istanbul for the first time.
A decision is expected later on Monday but while her outburst has attracted scorn around the world and slightly detracted from Stosur's magnificent achievement, there is no doubt that Williams puts women's tennis in the spotlight.
It also demonstrates that the fire still burns fiercely in one of the greatest women players to wield a racket and, as Stosur herself acknowledged, that can only be good for the sport.
"Serena, you are a fantastic player, great champion and have done wonders for our sport," the Australian said.
Reporting by Martyn Herman