In her first U.S. Open game this year, No. 1 seed Serena Williams strolled in to NWA's gangster classic "Straight Outta Compton." After scurrying for a sanitized version, the tournament's entertainment team, run by Michael Fiur, could bear the song for one night only before asking Williams to choose a milder, more crowd-friendly tune for the rest of the tournament. (She picked "The One," Mary J. Blige's collaboration with Drake.) Similarly, Venus Williams's request for Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" was politely scuttled for being too violent for the crowd.
The Williams sisters aren't the only tennis champions to challenge the sport's still-conservative image. Andy Roddick, who pioneered the tradition of picking entrance music in 2002, favors a playlist befitting a mosh pit more than a tennis court: 50 Cent, "Low" by Florida, and "Enter Sandman" by Metallica, a band he invited to sit in his box. "Andy loves the excitement of the crowd and particularly playing at night, and he doesn't mind loud music," says Fiur. "Now we reach out to a number of the top seeds, or they reach out to us," he says, though the trend was a slow burn. "Bringing tennis into a much more contemporary sports-entertainment setting with other sports has taken some time."
The players' picks tend to be either energizing or meaningful. Lyrics matter. Venus Williams favors a song that Wyclef Jean wrote for her last year. Roger Federer likes Madonna's "Jump." Kim Clijsters, a 26-year-old mom re-entering the fray, picked "Brand New Start" by Alter Bridge. John Isner, the six foot nine kid who wrecked Roddick's hopes this year, requested "Voices" by Rev Theory, a song that includes the lyrics "I have the voice that has the knowledge / And the power to rule your fate." James Blake likes "Juicy" by the Notorious B.I.G. and is, like Novak Djokovic, a fan of the Dave Matthews Band.
Most of the top seeds pick for themselves, though Fiur and his musical director, Dieter Ruehle, sometimes exercise a mischievous sense of humor. When black-clad, unstoppable champ Roger Federer appeared on court last year, Fiur waggishly dubbed him "Darth Federer" and started playing the Star Wars march for his matches; Federer "loves it," says Fiur. Anna Wintour, a Federer fan, gets Madonna's "Vogue." For Melanie Oudin, Ruehle picked Cher's "Believe," Journey's "Don't Stop Believin" — matching the inscription on her sneakers — and the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There."
Of course, the more intense players may not even be listening. "Some of them tune out everything that's going on, including the music," comments Fiur. The next step, he says: Fan participation through texting and Twitter. How long before iTunes has a U.S. Open channel?
Related: Defending Serena Williams [NYM]