From the ground up

Nike Tennis is Back.

What’s that? Hasn’t Nike recently clothed the now legendary carrier of Roger Federer, furthering a legacy of brand success, Grand Slam victories, and bringing the blazer back into regular tennis rotation? Yes, of course. Nike Tennis hasn’t exactly fallen off the map, but it has been sometime since a shoe from the lineup had the glorious street potential of the Air Courtballistic 2.3.

Last week we showed the kit Raphael Nadal is sporting on the Parisian red clay. The color and styling of the outfit harken to Andre Agassi’s rebel days. Days which put Nike tennis on the map and on the feet of folks who’d perhaps not even thought about swinging a racket.

Tennis and Nike have a long tradition. John McEnroe began working with the swoosh in 1978. He appeared in the “Rebel With a Cause” ad campaign and later championed the original cross trainer. Phil Knight’s choice of McEnroe beginning a legacy of tennis with personality at the swoosh.

Agassi, quite clearly, extended this vision (his rebelliousness featured heavily in advertisements by Cannon). He was the face of the Challenge Court series, one that perpetually challenged tennis norms in terms of aesthetic and color. Some even thought it was the all-white rule of Wimbledon he was avoiding when he sat out the tournament 3 years in a row.


Nike Tennis had for a time a swagger that translated beyond the bounds of the court. It rebelled against the traditional refinement of European looks that had found favor on British terraces and on American street corners. It was brash and it was distinct.

Nike’s tennis heyday was undoubtedly the 1990s. Save for Michael Chang’s Pumps, it was Agassi’s models that were the most stylish. Two other American’s also figured in the mix – Jim Courier and Pete Sampras. Both were equipped with models fitting of their personality. Courier’s scrappy play generated extraordinarily durable trainers and his love of baseball found shape in pinstriped polos. The Air Resistance had a six month guarantee (to be fair, Adidas also placed a similar guarantee on one of their models), and was dubbed a future classic by Bobbito Garcia in his Where Did You Get Those?. Sampras’ shoes might have lacked the panache of his homegrown rivals, but certainly didn’t fail. Shit, they were fitting of his pure business style.

Still, those tennis shoes from the 1990s have remained (with the exception of Challenge Court models) a touch under the radar. Nike Basketball hits rule the retro roost, and while contemporary hardwood footwear still presents a tide of interest, the tennis shoe remains relatively quite.
With the Air Courtballistic 2.3 Nike quietly raises the profile of its tennis department once again. We can’t miss the nods to Agassi. With its DragOn X toe tip, those of us with a ‘90s lust can’t avoid thinking of Mr. Courier. And, in its white, black and medium gray incarnation, they might still work for the sartorially subdued Sampras.

Much like Agassi’s original climb, the bold shoe challenges stylistic notions of “classic.” We live in an era when odes to tennis past aren’t unfamiliar to street style. Canvas uppers and rubber soles – those duel facets of the traditional court shoe – are on the feet of just about everyone.

Can Nike tennis shake things up again? We sure think so.

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