For almost a decade now, the most hotly debated question in tennis -- even more than who's the best player -- has been a behavioral one: What should be done about those on-court temper tantrums that often seem to overshadow the game and have, through their inevitablity, created a sideshow atmosphere at major tournaments? Without singling out any one of the following as the worst offender, we can all agree that champions such as Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe have routinely received as much condemnation for their vulgarities as they have drawn praise for their skills. And even as Nastase fades from prominence, young Pat Cash seems eager to be his replacement in the pantheon of obnoxiousness.

Nastase. Connors. McEnroe. Cash.

Notice anything missing from that group?

Women.

When was the last time you saw a female tennis player physically threaten an opponent, as Connors once did with Ivan Lendl? When was the last time you saw one make an obscene gesture at the crowd, deliberately hit a ball at a linesman or stomp over to an umpire and thunderously shout, "You're THE PITS of the universe!" as McEnroe has done?

Women just don't do that.

Women behave better on the court than men.

According to those players I spoke with the other day at the Virginia Slims tournament here in Washington, they want to, they are raised to. And they think they have to.

"Society disapproves of angry, belligerent women," said JoAnne Russell, who admits to becoming rip-roaring mad at times, but won't allow herself to turn up the volume. "If a woman gets mad, people say, 'That's so unladylike.' But when McEnroe goes crazy, nobody says, 'That's so ungentlemanlylike.' When McEnroe and Connors get wild, people say, 'What a man! What a guy!' If I did it, nobody would say, 'What a woman!'

"If you and I stood in the street and cursed, nobody would say a thing to you. But they'd look at me in horror. It happens all the time in juniors. When the boys carry on, people say they're just being boys. But if a girl curses on a side court somewhere, 83 guys in armbands will come sprinting out to wash her mouth out with soap."

Obviously, there's a double standard.

Curiously, it's a double standard the women don't resent. They have learned to live comfortably with it. They don't envy McEnroe or Connors their emotional latitude; they acknowledge the difference without bitterness.

"I don't think it's good manners on anyone's part, to carry on that way," said Wendy Turnbull, at 32, one of the older players on the women's tour. "But if guys do it, it's macho," she said, giving her shoulders an exaggerated shrug, "and if women do it, it's not very nice."

"Men are allowed to get away with more stuff," said Carling Bassett, at 17 one of the kids. "That's just the way it is. I think women are less angry than men anyway, but I know that if I say something bad in practice, my father will tell me to shut up. I don't believe that if McEnroe said something that anyone told him to shut up . . . But I know that we get booed a lot more than men do when we go crazy. Women are expected to conduct themselves more quietly than men." Instead of pouting at the injustice, she walked away confident in her ability to rise to a higher standard.

Which is not to say that there aren't any women who scream. Or curse. (Like Billie Jean King used to when she thought no one could hear.) Or slam a racket down in disgust. Or even break a wooden chair with one, as Martina Navratilova did in Florida, quite a few years ago.

There are.

Kathy Jordan called herself "one of the worst" and yesterday described her expression as "snarling." Pam Casale confessed to throwing tantrums, and, with much chagrin, to calling an umpire "a bitch." Russell, a delight to know, has walked demurely up to a linesman and quietly, so no one would suspect anything untoward, said to him, "Just between us, I think you're an idiot."

But unlike McEnroe and Connors, who glory in their tempers, the women don't. It is widely held that because women show love and concern more openly than do men, they are more emotional than men. In truth, women are conditioned early on to control many of their emotions -- particularly competitiveness, anger and aggression -- more than men. Many women's tennis players have admittedly taken their cue from Chris Evert Lloyd, for so long the role model for her dominating play and her metallic composure. Outbursts are seen as a show of weakness. Worse, in context they suggest a loathesome stereotype -- the hysterical female. Mary Decker fell into this symbolic hole and has yet to climb out.

"Even though Jimmy is much more vulgar than McEnroe, he carries on in a way that people respond to positively," Russell said. "People see him as tough and macho. They don't like McEnroe because they see him as a whiner. Nobody likes a whiner, and I think if women started going crazy they'd be seen as whiners." In terms of both self-interest and self-respect, she said, "it would be a terribly hard image to overcome."

Casale, who would like to lock her temper in a distant attic, spoke to that same point from personal experience: "I think that people who go to see women's tennis want us to be ladies on the court. They don't want us yelling, screaming and carrying on like the men. Look, I've seen films of myself when I've gotten real crazy; I look terrible." Casale ran both hands through her hair, flipping silky strands every which way, and asked, "Would you want to see a woman go real crazy and act, like, unbearable, and go screaming at the linesmen, screaming at everybody?"