"If I could, I would take this ... ball and shove it down your ... throat." The image of Serena Williams towering over a nervous-looking line judge went around the world in minutes. Blogs and websites lit up with comments about her violent outburst at the end of her semi-final match at the US Open on Saturday, while a video clip made it on to the "most viewed" page of YouTube 12 hours later, with four versions that attracted more than half a million clicks.
It was a red-hot sporting story but also a confirmation of the mainstream appeal of tennis, which has come roaring back into the public consciousness on the back of matches filled with drama, personalities, arch-rivals and record-breaking runs at history. "Tennis is hot right now," says Treena Lombardo, the fashion market director at W magazine. She notes that celebrities as diverse as Robin Williams, Matthew Perry, Lars Ulrich, Gavin Rossdale, Robert Plant and The Rolling Stones have all come out as fans, while a host of blogs and websites devoted to the sport obsess over every detail of its stars' behaviour and appearance. This summer, a photo of the actress Jennifer Love Hewitt in a bikini and heels holding a tennis racket enlivened thousands of newspapers and news sites, while the pages of Vogue regularly include pieces on Roger Federer and the Williams sisters.
"We would definitely consider putting a tennis star on the cover," says the Details magazine deputy editor Greg Williams, "whereas five years ago it was unthinkable." Nicholas McCarvel, a contributing editor to Tennis Served Fresh (cornedbeefhash.wordpress.com), a US site launched in 2007 devoted to "tennis, fashion art and culture", says that the reason for the increase in coverage in the past 18 months is that tennis has become much more entertaining.
"Whether it's wardrobe malfunctions, poor line calls or bad attitudes, the on- and off-court theatrics never seem to end on the women's tour," he says. "There is always drama and storylines." But, he adds, it's two figures in the men's game who have really brought in crowds. "There isn't a sports fan out there who hasn't heard of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, whereas most would be hard-pressed to name Juan Carlos Ferrero or any of the other top players of 2004, when Federer began his ascent," says McCarvel.
"There have been so many classic encounters between the two," agrees the The Sunday Times tennis correspondent Barry Flatman. "Their styles are so contrasting, their lives so different, but there is also so much mutual respect." The pair have attracted a wider audience because of their near-perfect tennis, says McCarvel (witness the between-the-legs shot that gave Federer three match points at Saturday's US Open semi-final against Novak Djokovic; some are calling it the best tennis stroke ever). But they've built their personas with their flamboyant looks, he says.
"Nadal was an early advocate of the 'pirate pants' [long shorts that end halfway down the calf], whereas Federer dressed as a kind of sailor at this year's Wimbledon. He has been criticised for being a metrosexual, but I think it makes him all the more interesting. It's a lot better than the Americanised basketball look that tennis was falling into." Not everyone agrees. "Federer's jacket at Wimbledon this year was distinctly campy and his decision to immediately pull on a tracksuit top emblazoned with a big '15' (to depict his number of Grand Slam titles) was widely perceived to be disrespectful to beaten finalist Roddick," says Flatman.
For McCarvel, a sense of visual flair and individuality such as Federer's will draw others to the sport. "How tennis players present themselves on court makes them all the more interesting," he says. "The men have really grasped this." And the women? Is it possible that Williams' passionate outburst might also attract more people to the sport, just as John McEnroe's temper tantrums put his name into the headlines in the 1970s and 1980s?
"Oh yes, I think so," says McCarvel. "But I am not sure they are going to be what you might call devoted fans."