Tennis has never been better than it is right now. Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer are three of the greatest players ever, and on the women’s side, we still have legends like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. With the 2014 U.S. Open tipping off earlier this week in New York City, the game is in very good hands. So are the sneakers.
Ask a fan about the best tennis sneakers available right now and you’ll hear things like the adidas Barricade 8 (Andy Murray‘s favorite shoe), Federer’s Nike Zoom Vapor 9.5 Tour, the Nike Air Max Courtballistec 4.3 — a Rafa favorite — and the Asics Gel-Resolution 5 (worn by just about everyone), all of which are available at Champs Sports. Tennis stars, even the biggest names, will never sell shoes in this country the way basketball players do, but that can’t overshadow the game’s deep sneaker history. In fact, it’s arguable no sport has a longer — and better — history of solid sneakers than tennis.
Rubber-soled shoes were first designed in the 1800s in England. They would eventually earn the “sneakers” moniker literally, as in the way they allowed police officers to catch criminals by sneaking around quietly. (Well, actually, they were originally called plimsolls before anything else.) By 1920, Converse was already creating shoes for basketball players. A year later, basketball player Charles H. “Chuck” Taylor earned a job with the company and soon was selling his signature shoe across the country.
Tennis shoes developed on a similar curve, when the German shoemaker Adi Dassler started experimenting in his mother’s washroom in 1920. Eleven years later, the first edition of adidas was born, and in the ensuing generation, because of the pop culture influence of people like James Dean and tennis champion Jack Purcell, as well as the takeover at the 1936 Summer Olympics — Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Dassler’s shoes — tennis shoes became fashion statements.
By 1971, now officially known as adidas, the company reached out to tennis champion Stan Smith about becoming the face of a shoe. With French pro Robert Haillet on the cusp of retirement, and with the company wanting to push into the United States, Smith was a great candidate. He’d won majors. He’d been named the top-ranked player. He had style. And he was American. After meeting together in a Paris nightclub around midnight, Smith and Dassler worked out an agreement over the shoe. It eventually became the adidas Stan Smith, the very first leather tennis shoe.
BUY NOW: The adidas Stan Smith Collection
The Stan Smith made sweeping changes to what tennis players wore on the court. The shoe featured a herringbone bottom for better traction, and eventually more support for the exposed Achilles’ tendon, as well as the aforementioned leather. In turn, it broke barriers and dipped into popular culture, becoming a phenomenon that still resonates with sneakerheads today.
“Where I grew up,” New York City sneakerhead Jay Corbin told me this summer, “there was nothing fresher than a fresh pair of Stan Smiths.”
The Stan Smith was fashionable and accessible. Teenagers could wear it just as adults did. Customizers saw it as a blank canvas of potential creativity; the average person saw it as something else entirely. In a sense, because of the plain upper and the smooth look, it was timeless. It was also one of the first signature shoes to pop off as more than a performance shoe. In later years, tennis stars pushed the envelope of the design that the Stan Smith made possible, but even as on-court performance tennis shoes began to diversify, the Stan Smith grew in status.
“A lot of people now think I’m a shoe,” Smith says, “and they don’t even know I exist. They didn’t know I was a tennis player. The shoe has taken on a life of its own, way beyond me.”
It released over and over again over the next 30 years, dropping as the adidas Stan Smith II and the adidas stan smith 80s, and in 2014 made another return in its original format. Even as tennis struggled to connect with much of the country’s inner city, the Stan Smith showed the potential the game’s best players had as pitchmen, as it was consistently named-dropped in hip-hop songs by legends like Jay Z. The designers at adidas still worked on other shoes, even producing a classic signature line for star Ivan Lendl that lasted for around a decade — remember 1984’s Lendl Comp? — but the Stan Smith’s presence overshadowed everything.
Yet even as the shoe grew in popularity among casual fans, in the face of growing technology, higher demands and profiles, and more specialization, new companies emerged. Nike, in particular, was rising. They released their first brand ad with products in 1977, a year before the Stan Smith was given its official name. By 1980, Nike had a 50 percent share of the athletic shoe market in the States.
Ultimately, tennis shoes reached a lifestyle and cultural apex with Andre Agassi. The eight-time Grand Slam winner has one of the greatest signature sneaker lines of all time, starting with the Nike Air Tech Challenge in 1988 and continuing with the sneaker’s second edition. Reinforcing his renegade attitude and penchant for wearing loud, vibrant colors, the line further pushed the envelope throughout the 1990s with classics such as the Nike Air Challenge Huarache and, most noteworthy, the Nike Air Tech Challenge III 3/4. In a sense, it was the answer to the question posed by the Stan Smith: could tennis stars really sell sneakers? Ironically, Agassi’s line was revered for opposing reasons and it seemed to almost relish being different from the Stan Smith. The Stan Smith created a lane for tennis product, and Agassi and Nike expanded on it.
The adidas Stan Smith, as well as Agassi’s assortment of signature trainers, showed that tennis shoes could crossover into the mainstream. The Stan Smith had a clean leather upper. It has stayed relevant for multiple generations precisely because it is so simple. But then Agassi’s style was brazen and loud, his sneakers sporting a distinct ’90s retro look that made noise as it bucked trends.
Either way, today’s tennis shoes are noticeably more advanced, with most of Nike’s and adidas’ top technology being used for their top players. During this year’s U.S. Open, don’t just watch the ball. Watch the shoes, too, where you’ll see Nike unveil special editions of the Nike Lunar Ballistec and Nike Vapor 9.5 Tour, and adidas’ top talents like the Joker rocking the adidas Barricade.
“The adidas Barricade is my favorite shoe,” Novak once said. “I have been wearing it for many years and have worn all the different generations. I have full confidence in the shoe and am very comfortable on the court when I wear it, which is essential for a tennis player. I have very specific dynamic movements, with a lot of splits and slides, so I need to have the right stability in the shoe, but also have an optimal weight and great performance. The Barricade offers me everything.”
Indeed. Tennis shoes have come a long way.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney