Tennis shoes have never been as light, as sleek or as comfortable as they are today. Led by Roger Federer in his Nike Zoom Vapor 9.5 Tours, players look to accelerate quicker, stop faster and change direction at the snap of a finger, and their footwear reflects that. Yet tennis shoes weren’t always so minimal. Each of the past five decades had its own distinct flavor of tennis kicks. With Wimbledon kicking off this week, we take a look at how the tennis shoe has changed over the past 50 years.
The 1970s – Low and Light
Stan Smith in his signature adidas sneakers after winning Wimbledon in 1972
Originally called the adidas Robert Hailer, after the Frenchman who wore it first, one of the most popular tennis shoes of the 70s, the adidas Stan Smith, debuted in 1971 on the feet of Mr. Smith (shown above), a man with a lifetime singles record of 641-262 and two titles (1971 U.S. Open and 1972 Wimbledon.) Like most tennis shoes of the ’70s, including the Puma Top Spin and Arthur Ashe’s Le Coq Sportif, the Stan Smith was a low top. It featured an all-white, leather upper with green accents on the tongue and heel. The shoe also had three lines of ventilation holes running down each side.
The 1980s – The 3/4 Cut
John McEnroe wearing the Nike Challenge Court during the men’s Wimbledon final in 1983
One of the best tennis kicks of the 1980s was the Nike Challenge Court, a shoe that debuted in 1983 and was championed by John McEnroe, who won six major singles titles from 1980 to 84. The Challenge Court, which featured a leather upper with nylon mesh, sported a 3/4 cut, just above the ankle. That style was emulated in other tennis sneakers of the 80s, like the adidas Lendl Competition or the Wilson Pro Staff, but McEnroe’s star power drove the popularity of the Challenge Court.
The 1990s – Exotic Designs
Andre Agassi in the Nike Air Tech Challenge IV in 1991
Before Andre Agassi was a clean-cut bald man, he was a denim shorts-wearing, bandana-sporting, long hair-blowing man of the ’90s. And with his outlandish look came an outlandish sneaker. The Nike Air Tech Challenge IV sported wild colors, like the tie-dye colorway Agassi rocks in the photo above, and featured a lightning bolt pattern down the sides. In the 90s, tennis sneaker companies went a little out of the box with their designs, especially Nike, with kicks like the Air Challenge Huarache and Air Resistance.
The 2000s – Ultra-Protective
Andy Roddick wears the Reebok Figjam DMX at the 2003 U.S. Open
Andy Roddick won just one major during his hey-day of the 2000s, but his Reebok Figjam DMXs were all the rage on the court. The shoe was bulkier and more protective than its predecessors from earlier decades, with an upper inspired by Roddick’s love of the Hummer (SUV) to keep the shoe durable throughout the year, and a ventilated forefoot area for breathability.
The 2010s – Sleek and Slim
Roger Federer in the Nike Zoom Vapor 9.5 Tour
Sleek and slim are the watchwords of the tennis sneaker in the 2010s, and the Nike Zoom Vapor embodies that design philosophy. Favored by Roger Federer, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, the Zoom Vapor was designed by Tinker Hatfield, the man behind many of the legendary Air Jordan silhouettes. With Nike Zoom cushioning and a mesh upper to keep things light and breathable, the Zoom Vapor, much like Rafeal Nadal’s Lunar Ballistec and Novak Djokovic’s adidas Barricade 7.0, fits snug around the foot, allowing you to move without fear that your foot will slide around.
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