"A shoe must be three things: it must be light, comfortable and it must be able to go the distance." - Bill Bowerman
First Nike Logos (image: wikimedia.org)
The American Sportswear company, Nike, Inc. was born on January 25, 1964 in Eugene, Oregon. Until 1971, it was officially known as Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS) and was founded by Bill Bowerman, the head track-and-field coach at the University of Oregon, and his former student Phil Knight.
BRS started by importing Onitsuka Tiger athletic shoes from Japan. A revolutionary transformation in the running shoe began in 1970 when Bowerman created the first waffle sole, which he initially found out about by pouring rubber into his wife’s waffle iron.
Bill Bowerman (image: nike.com)
A year later, BRS became Nike, with Bowerman naming the company after the Greek goddess of victory. Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student at Portland State, collaborated with Knight to create the famous Swoosh logo.
Original "Swoosh" (image: wikimedia.org)
Nike officially entered the tennis scene in 1973 when the brand decided to collaborate with rowdy Romanian tennis player, Ilie Nastase at the Rainier International Tennis Classic in Seattle, Washington. Nastase was the first professional athlete to wear the brand’s tennis shoes in competition. Shop Nike Tennis Shoes
Five years later, the brand started becoming more of a household name and surged in popularity with the signing of eccentric tennis star John McEnroe. McEnroe expanded the brand in his sport by not only wearing shoes but also apparel. The collection included a McEnroe logo featuring a red swoosh and revolutionary “Mc” emblem backed by a black-and-blue checkerboard.
McEnroe Air Trainer 1 1987 (image: nike.com)
As tennis matches became longer and faster paced, Nike designer Tinker Hatfield was instrumental in using footwear in sneaker modification. Hatfield created the Nike Air Trainer 1 in the late-1980’s.
Initially that particular sneaker was not supposed to be a tennis shoe; however, thanks to McEnroe’s influence, it showed up on the tennis court before being available on the market in 1987. The Air Trainer 1 was wildly popular as the shoe featured great lateral support and foot-securing technology that helped control ankle sprains. As McEnroe started winning in the shoes, Nike honoured his requests to make the Air Trainer 1 with specific outsole versions for both grass and clay.
Air Trainer 1 1980s (image: nike.com)
Charismatic American Andre Agassi signed with Nike in 1988 and the 18-year-old quickly moved up the ranks wearing the Air Tech Challenge. This model brought about a mid-cut sneaker with a dynamic fit in a multitude of colors, perfect for Agassi’s personality. Over the next couple of years, the “Hot Lava” look eventually transformed into a neon green detailing (inspired by a tennis ball) for the Air Tech Challenge line.
Andre Air Tech Challenge (image: nike.com)
In 1992, Nike introduced the Air Tech Challenge Huarache which was packed with industry-leading technology merging all of the design elements of the previous Air Tech Challenge models. The Hurache sneaker drove Agassi to his first Wimbledon title in 1992. It featured a neoprene ankle length soft shoe and a polyurethane midsole, which meant that the shoe was resilient and would not flatten over time. There was also a noticeable Air sole element in the heel.
Nike refined Agassi’s sneaker line during his career eventually creating a shoe that was part Air Tech Challenge/part Air Jordan 7.
Hatfield also designed sneakers for rival and 14-Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras, who began wearing the Air Oscillate in 1997. From 1989-2002, Sampras and Agassi met on the court 34 times and produced their share of historic moments in the game.
Air Oscillate Sampras (image: nike.com)
The Nike Air Oscillate was introduced after a clever ploy by designer Hatfield who asked the star player to try his new shoes before a friendly game of pick-up basketball. Sampras quickly took a liking to the responsive Zoom Air cushioning setup. Soon after switching from his old sneakers; Sampras easily won the 1997 Australian Open wearing the Nike Air Oscillate model. The Southern Californian wore them throughout the prime of his career winning numerous titles over the next seven years.
Nike made headlines in women’s tennis with the 1993 signing of baseline master Mary Joe Fernandez. Fernandez became the first female athlete to the wear Nike apparel head-to-toe and she was soon followed after by a roster of the era's top players that eventually included Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest women’s player ever.
In the latter stages of the Agassi-Sampras rivalry, Nike recruited a young Swiss player to the fold and the world would soon find out how prudent that decision was. Signed by Nike in 1994, Roger Federer would emerge on the tennis stage shortly after the careers of Agassi and Sampras were winding down and he would go on to become perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game. Shop Federer Gear
In 2000, Nike added Spain’s Rafael Nadal to their team and the fiery young player from Mallorca would, for the better part of the next two decades, enjoy a great deal of success with his own style and flair. Shop Nadal Gear
Rafa's Shoes (images: nike.com & merchantoftennis.com)
In 2008, the Mallorca Observatory discovered an asteroid, giving the Spanish Observatory the idea for Nadal’s famous shoe – the 2020 Vapor Cage 4 Asteroid Tennis Shoe. As the name entails, the outside of the shoe and the inside sole have an asteroid design, along with Nadal’s iconic raging bull logo on the outside heel. The shoe caters to those with a wide foot and low arch and in terms of performance; it is Nike’s most durable tennis shoe, allowing you to slide on the hard courts, just like Nadal himself. Shop Nike Vapor Cage
A 20-time Grand Slam champion, Federer first raised eyebrows with his Nike shoe at the 2012 Australian Open. There, the Swiss Maestro displayed the most innovative shoe to date -- The Zoom Vapor 9 Tour, crafted by Hatfield.
2012 Australian Open Vapor 9 (image: nike.com)
The tennis legend had worked with the company beforehand to create four versions of the Nike Zoom Vapor 9 Tour, and previewed each on the Roger Federer Facebook Fan Page. This strategy allowed fans to vote for their favourite version of the shoe, with the winning choice being worn by him during his daytime matches in Melbourne that year.
Not long after, a bit of controversy surrounded Federer’s shoe choice in 2013 at Wimbledon. After his opening-round match, he was told by Wimbledon officials to cease wearing the ‘orange-soled Nike shoes’. The grass-court major follows a strict dress code as players are supposed to wear all white.
2013 Wimbledon Vapor 9 (image: nike.com)
The following year, Federer wore Nike Air Jordan sneakers, originally produced exclusively for Michael Jordan in 1984. In 2018, the company introduced Federer’s updated Zoom Vapor line which combined elements of the Air Jordan 3 shoe and featured the original “Fire Red” style from 1988. Even though Federer has switched apparel companies, he remains a Nike ambassador for the Zoom Vapor X model and his long-time partnership with the company is on solid footing for the near future. Shop Nike Zoom Vapor Shoe Collection
2014 Air Jordan (image: nike.com)
2018 Vapor X (image: nike.com)
Serena Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam Champion, signed with Nike back in 2004. In early 2014, she began turning heads with NikeCourt Flare – a shoe specifically engineered just for Williams The shoe was unique in that it contained an attached ankle cuff, therefore providing Williams with more stability and decreasing any ankle rolling issues. In their first meeting, veteran designer Aaron Cooper convinced Williams of the shoe and its construction by drawing inspiration from the shoes of basketball legend Kobe Bryant. Shop Serena Williams Gear
NikeCourt Flare 2015 (image: nike.com)
In 2018, Nike celebrated the 50th US Open, by launching the Air Max 97 Off-White Elemental Rose Serena “Queen” sneakers. Currently, the superstar plays with white and yellow coloured Nike Flare QS sneakers. The lightweight shoe is made for aggressive movers and has a soft, foam mid-sole cushioning. It’s also the same shoe worn by former world no.1 Victoria Azarenka.
Most recently at the 2020 Australian Open, the new NikeCourt Air Zoom Vapor Cage 4 made its debut not only on Nadal’s feet but also on professional tennis players Kyle Edmond, Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev. The shoe balances the visual and speed of the Vapor line with the resilience of the Cage line. Shop Nike Vapor Cage
2020 Cage 4 (images: nike.com)
Nadal was influential to the Cage series, as the Nike Zoom Air unit was moved from the shoe’s heel to the forefront. Nike Sports Research Labs swayed designers to use more of a reactive foam in the heel and a Zoom Air airbag in the front. Nadal also requested shoe stability when moving laterally on the court, therefore integrating the Vapor and Cage together.
Overtime, as technology advances and the game of tennis changes, shoes need to be constantly altered to keep up. Players feedback is crucial in the persistent revamping of the Nike tennis shoe and they have come a long way since 1973.