strokin’: when tennis met music

By Jonathan Scott

It may not be tabloid fodder like every Taylor Swift dalliance, and it’s not nearly as insufferable as Brangelina, but the marriage between music and tennis is itself a storied love affair. It stretches across decades and genres, and it knows no bounds – well, none other than those pesky white lines.

Try to set aside the disappointment that the artist Sergey with the song “Tennis” on iTunes is actually not Vera Zvonareva‘s ridiculously good-looking model/coach. And, however possible, repress the memory of Justine Henin‘s song-and-dance scareoke on TV. Yes, Novak Djokovic and Ivo Karlovic have tried their tongues at rapping, as has Vince Spadea with amusingly deplorable results, but that doesn’t mean you should try it at home after perfecting your Djokovic-ian down-the-line backhand, does it?

As the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival just wrapped its annual song-a-thon in Austin, Texas – soon to be the site for a volatile USA vs. Spain Davis Cup tie in July – here’s the skinny on the latest hot shots in tennis-tinged music and an homage to some of the greats.

Best Newcomer: James Blake is a dub-step soulman and a veritable crooner. The British JB, that is. His American counterpart is a best-selling author and owner of a laser forehand whose best days are past, but Blake the Brit is taking the music world by slow-burning storm, releasing his rave-reviewed eponymous debut in February and – well before that – igniting the blogosphere with his faithful but quirky cover of Feist‘s “Limit to Your Love.” Let’s just pray that, when we hit up a James Blake concert sometime, his fans aren’t half as annoying (adorable?) as the American Blake’s J-Block can be in the tennis stands.

Dainty she is not. Our fave album cover from Blonde Readhead’s 23. (Image via band website)

Best Dressed: Sometimes it’s okay to judge a band by its cover. Oxymoronic indie rockers Blonde Redhead out of New York City put out the best, most elegant tennis-themed album art when they dropped 23 in 2007. But, no, the song “Top Ranking” has nothing to do with disputed no. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

Worst Dressed, but Best Sound: Yea, there is a band simply called Tennis, a married duo specializing in ’60s surf-pop for 2011. This act released its debut Cape Dory in January, and though the song “Marathon” doesn’t harbor the words “Isner,” “Mahut” or “Wimbledon” anywhere in the lyrics, it’s solid stuff. Consider it your soulful throwback soundtrack for this summer – but steer clear of wearing skintight aqua as with the album cover. It looks like leftover fabric from a hideous Nadia Petrova creation.

Best Tournament Run: This has to go to the ginger-haired heroine in the video for Vampire Weekend‘s “Giving Up the Gun.” She rips through a draw that includes Joe Jonas, a Daft Punk-helmeted doubles team, and even a flask-swilling Jake Gyllenhaal in tear-away pants. It’s a great song, and the immaculately-white indoor court is sharp – even if the choked-up strokes from the damsel look laughably bad in reality. Girl, who taught you to grip a racquet like that? Topping it off: RZA from Wu-Tang Clan serves as the chair umpire, and Lil Jon offers astute on-court coaching. Brill.

TSF Vault | The many lives of tennis-themed music vids

Best Clay-Court Match: French DJs Martin Solveig — oddly in tasteful Wimbledon whites — and Bob Sinclar, sporting some hot-magenta vintage-Agassi styles, squared off on Roland Garros‘ red dirt for the video for Solveig’s dance track “Hello” sung by Dragonette. The match and music video are both visceral, a veritable heartbreaker. Check out the cameo by that flashiest of the current French tennis stars as he comes on the scene and devastates the darling DJ.

Hello? Could Martin Solveig look any cooler? We think not. (YouTube screengrab)

Best Charity Hit: Andy Murray and Thom Yorke of Radiohead teamed up for charity single “Two Minute Silence” to benefit serving and former British troops and their families. Strangely enough, its title is no lie. “Hear” — but really just see — it here. British Prime Minister David Cameron and more also got in on this quiet riot. Truly the oddest not-quite-a-band lineup ever, but hey, can’t wait for their episode of “Behind the Music.” Finalist: Wozniacki put out a charity single called “Oxigent” (or “Oxygen”) to benefit Danish and Polish Paralympic athletes. Because, you know, she has oodles of free time.

Top Passing Shot: Meg Baird‘s lovely, lilting “Waltze of the Tennis Players.” It’s just pretty, and we do pretty.

More of Jonathan’s music musings (including “Best Grunt” and “Best Musical Ode to a Tennis Player”) after the cut.

Best Grunt: The seemingly reptilian rapper Lil Wayne actually sampled Elena “Demented” Dementieva’s mid-stroke shriek for his song Sportcenter in 2006. Further cementing his tennis bona fides, he name-drops Steffi Graf and Roger Federer in that same track.

Top Groupies: Simply put, no one compares to Milos Raonic‘s musical fanboys or Andrea Petkovic‘s admirer, German artist Phil Fill, whose “Petko Dance” ditty rides a jouncy beat.

Instant Classic: Contrary to what some believed at the time, Michael Jackson‘s “Billie Jean” was not referencing a certain bespectacled women’s sports pioneer named Ms. King. VH1‘s “Pop-Up Video” was good to clear that up. Even so, Elton John did pen “Philadelphia Freedom” for BJK – and now the World Team Tennis squad in that city bears the same name. Sir Elton and the unofficial Dame Billie Jean remain close chums to this day. The piano-plucking icon also regularly trades charity-event appearances with the likes of Agassi, Graf, and Andy Roddick, and he sang at the A-Rod/Brooklyn Decker nuptials.

No. 1 Pop Icon & Chair Umpire Collaboration: This mix of Lady Gaga‘s “Poker Face” featuring pro tennis ump Kader Nouni is masterful. Kudos to @MindTheRacket for injecting Nouni’s pleasing baritone into the song as he calls “Time” on changeovers and barks “Correction! The ball was good” after an errant line call. It all works.

There’s no “escaping” it: Anna and Enrique would be deemed king and queen should the tennis and music worlds ever form their own country. (ANI photo)

Best Featured Performance by a Real Tennis Star: They say they’re never going to marry, but Enrique Iglesias and Anna Kournikova always heat it up whether they’re courtside at an NBA game or walking a red carpet – or making out in a sleek bathroom in the video to his so-bad-it’s-good song “Escape.” As it turns out, Anna was almost as good an actress as she was a singles titleist. Finalist: The clip for “Do My” by Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek brought on WNBA star Lisa Leslie and one Serena Williams for a female sports montage. Check out a pretty-in-Puma-purple Serena at the 2:20 mark. And lest we forget, Serena likes to shred on guitar, especially when kept off court by her foot injury (note the boot, and the fantastic, fluorescent Nike high-tops).

TSF Vault | Rafa’s Honorable Mention in Shakira‘s “Gypsy”

Best Musical Ode to a Tennis Player: For all its excruciating, drippy drama – and it could hardly have it any other way – the little-known folk troubadour Dan Bern declared on “Monica” why the seasoned Seles deserves all the adoration she has received. The classic tragedienne’s tale makes for prime songwriting material, and Bern is happy to serve it up, even referring to her as “grim and hammering” upon her return to tennis. Spot on, Danny boy. The songsmith obviously studied his subject. This is poetry in motion. Finalist: “Hurricane Ana,” the tribute to Ivanovic, who introduces the song, by Serbian rapper Filip Filipi, who formerly went by the stage moniker Sin, which is something the seemingly angelic Ana would ever be caught in.

And so the ongoing romance betwixt tennis and music just makes sense. It’s in these two arenas, the painted court and the sound stage, that we as people are revealed to be just that: all too human. If needing further proof, look no further than Federer’s forehand shanks or, well, anything Christina Aguilera has done this year.

Consider also that the journeyman tennis pro perennially ranked around no. 120, let alone the career doubles specialist, shares the same plight as that indie band who begs for table scraps at a greasy-spoon joint long after the show is over. The electric guitar and the high-tech racquet are just variations on the same instrument, the same weapon. The ax.

But it’s not just them, the pros. Music and tennis fans alike cannibalize each other too. The tragically hip music snob in your midst will groan and roll eyes if you talk about that hot new band you’ve discovered called Arcade Fire. After all, he listens to bands that don’t exist yet. Likewise, your tennis-fanatic friend who fills out French Open brackets as if it’s the NCAA basketball tournament may already be a historian about the merits of Monica Puig or Sloane Stephens. Don’t you dare forget that she gets a scouting report on the next top tennis prospect as soon as that kid shoots out of the birth canal.

There you have it: “The Game of Love” is not just a Santana song that Michelle Branch sang on back when she was famous, but it’s the mantra for this achingly beautiful, even artistic sport. When we couple the catalog of pitch-perfect, heartrending breakup songs out there with the fact that tennis is literally the sport in which “love” means nothing, we see how this is forever a match made in heaven.

Your turn | We’re sure we omitted some tennis-tastic songs here and indubitably forgot about others outright. What are your favorites? And your top musical mishits?

Jonathan Scott is a travel book editor by day and a freelance writer by night. He’s a freak for good music and tennis. Find him on Twitter: @jonscott9. He also writes about music at Stereo Subversion.

(kournikova lead photo from rolling stone)


  1. It would have to be “Tennis Night in America” sung by Jenna Maroney on TGS

  2. JonScott says:

    Great call. Such a good parody from Jane Krakowski.

  3. “I’m in love with Steffi Graf” by House before he was House.

  4. dent may has a fantastic song called “god loves you michael chang”


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