The tennis shoe has undergone some significant changes since its days of rubber and canvas simplicity during a time when decorum was the done thing and players went back and forth in some apparel that looked downright formal. With McEnroe and Agassi’s assistance, a clubhouse-rocking aesthetic was born. Around the same time that the sport encountered a rebel invasion, Michael Jordan was breaking out the third in his signature shoe series — the one codenamed the revolution, resulting in the silhouette that would cement his relationship with Nike for good.
From one court to another, the union of the Jordan III and Roger Federer’s Zoom Tour Vapor 9 seems unorthodox, but with the heft and weight of many modern tennis signature shoes stopping the designs from being used for anything other than their intended purpose, the Vapor 9’s comparatively featherweight feel and accessible, lockdown look brought a new potential.
If the Michael Jordan and Roger Federer being world-class Nike-endorsed athletes link still seems too tenuous for you, the fact they both had shoes designed by Tinker Hatfield means a fusion make a lot more sense. With a tribute to 1988’s black and cement elephant printed icon on 2012’s Zoom Tour Vapor 9, the latest iteration of the NIKECOURT Zoom Vapor AJ3’s on-court premiere in London during the final of the ATP World Tour on Sunday (ahead of its NikeLab drop on Monday, 10th November) gave us an opportunity to talk to Roger Federer about the project.
“I need to feel like I’m low to the ground and that I really do not twist my ankle — that is the biggest fear for a tennis player. So if you think about it and how many hours I’ve spent on a court, I’ve actually been very lucky.”
Roger, how much wear testing and work went into creating this Jordan hybrid? I’ve seen projects that mix silhouettes before, but they’re generally for people that want to pose in them rather than play in them. And when the white version of the Tour Vapor 9 Jordan III debuted, you were playing in front of thousands.
Absolutely. With the outfits that we wear, it can be design rather than performance but with a shoe I think you can’t compromise. It has to work. The Vapor that I’ve been playing in was the base and then Jordan came in with its design — I still had to wear test a little bit. I had a covered shoe so it wouldn’t show anything, like the cars, you know? I’d go on a road trip and have the other players looking at me like, “What are you doing?” And I had to say, “It’s the shoe I’m going to be wearing in a few days!” I wore this new one for practise and I was always hoping that no pictures would get out, but it was quiet. So I know that this one works. The only difference I did have is that usually during the year I have a lot of mesh on the shoe, but during the clay court season I have leather on top too so the clay doesn’t go through to the socks. I really like playing in leather shoes and I like the look and feel of it, so from that standpoint I didn’t have to wear test a whole lot. It’s just important that the Vapor in general is a great shoe, which it has become though Tinker, who also designed the Jordan shoe. He knows both shoes well.
Tinker must know all about your feet from designing the Vapor 9.
He does know my feet and I have a custom-made mould. If you look at my feet, mine are a bit wider. So it’s very much there — he knows both of us, so it’s very cool that the three of us can do a collaboration.
The sheer wear and tear that tennis puts a shoe though is intense — especially when a game goes on for hours and hours. Is that tough to preempt?
Actually the way I move, I don’t rip through shoes so much — thankfully. But I know some guys who go through one pair of shoes a match almost, which I find very hard to comprehend. Players like Novak who slide tear through shoes — if you slide on the hard courts that really tears the shoe apart, but the way I move is quite smooth actually, so I usually go through two pairs per tournament, plus all the practises and all that. And still they look decent on the foot at the front and on the side they get a bit used. What’s important for me is that I feel that they’re agile and they’re quick and responsive, you know? I need to feel like I’m low to the ground and that I really do not twist my ankle — that is the biggest fear for a tennis player. I’ve only had that once and it was on a crazy court back in 2005. So if you think about it and how many hours I’ve spent on a court, I’ve actually been very lucky.
Does the parallel between you and Michael Jordan put a lot of extra pressure on you? You seemed excited to meet him in the Nike video from a few months back.
I was definitely happy to meet him. It was my hero next to me — it was a bit odd but I was trying to be cool with it! I was very excited when I was told I should wear it at the Open and in the first match and not only was I going to wear it, he was going to come and watch. So I was like, “Ohhh! Okay, don’t get injured!” I was actually cool about it until, like, the day of the match. I was playing night sessions so had a long time to think about it and the more the match approached I was telling myself, “I can’t lose this match!” So I went into it, like, “Whatever you do, don’t lose!” [Laughter.] I actually got very nervous that day and it was not a great feeling to have, but I was happy that Michael was at the match, the crowd was good and happy to see Michael and I’m glad that I did win in the shoe for the first time, but like you said, I did feel that pressure — I did feel something in the stadium and every time I was serving I saw this shoe like, “Whoa!” I ended up playing a second and third time in the shoe during the Open which was easier.
“We had every Jordan ever made out and Tinker and Jordan Brand told me to choose the one I prefer the most — the one that makes you feel the best and play the best.”
I get the impression that you’re very happy with the Zoom Vapor 9 design, it’s two years old now — do you find that being happy with a shoe is like being happy with a racket and does that make you resistant to big changes?
I’m more flexible than Pete Sampras was. I mean Pete Sampras didn’t want to change much equipment. You have to be careful though— we’re working on things right now. With the Jordan version, we had every Jordan ever made out and Tinker and Jordan Brand told me to choose the one I prefer the most — the one that makes you feel the best and play the best. I chose the III and they were very happy that I chose it. I didn’t know which one I liked better — black or white. White is more tennis.
Black is a fan favourite though.
I think so too. I didn’t expect the black one to come out later on. Then the Jordan group said, “How about black?” And that one’s cool too, but I was like, “Where and how?” So that’s where the idea came to wear it in the World Tour finals.
Were several different Jordan models shown to you on the Vapor platform?
No, they did it and showed it to me and said, “Do you like it?” And I did like it. I really let them do it, because the way they were going to do it would be something that I liked. Do you like a white or a grey tongue?
Grey is the best. The toe down view on the Jordan III is very visually appealing. You mentioned feeling good when you wear certain clothing or shoes — what you’ve worn has been a discussion point before. Jordan was a master of psychological warfare on the court — is your appearance part of your game plan?
It’s more for me — it’s for me rather than the opponent. The better you feel, the better you play. When I walked out in the suit at Wimbledon or in the Jordan shoe, those were iconic moments by tennis standards and they are big, you know? We’re very fortunate in tennis because I get to change my outfit around ten times a year and so I get a lot of changes because I work with Nike so closely with the design team, I always know what’s coming and I must say, it’s very cool being part of that process to look and feel good.
“The better you feel, the better you play. When I walked out in the suit at Wimbledon or in the Jordan shoe, those were iconic moments by tennis standards.”
Growing up, there seemed to be a lot of tennis shoes worn as a fashion statement, like McEnroe’s Nike shoes. After Agassi and the Tech Challenges, your generation came through with a fast and powerful game — shoes had to be tougher and heavier so they couldn’t be worn so easily as a fashion statement…
Yeah, they had to become tougher. Agassi’s generation really started that with shoes becoming more bulky. I remember that.
When you were working on the Zoom Vapor 9, did you have a vision that maybe people could wear the shoe off the court too?
That was the idea with the Vapor, because the way that we can design the Vapor together with Tinker and the looks definitely gives it street-wear potential. And with the Jordan thing we’re going into it with the references to hi-tops and basketball shoes that are very, very fashionable right now. I think the black one is something I’ll wear on the street. White is a colour that really seems to be becoming stronger on shoes, but black is more toned down. On the court I might be wearing white, but away from the court I like something darker — it’s not so visible. It definitely has that potential.