By Tim Newcomb
Not every tennis shoe is an instantly acknowledged banger, like Andre Agassi’s Nike Air Tech Challenge, or bound for eventual glory, like adidas’ now-iconic Stan Smith. Many styles were sleepers, adorned the feet of less distinguished players, got overlooked, or were simply ahead of their time. With the benefit of hindsight—and a raft of some very frank reader input after we released our list of the Most Important Tennis Shoes of All Time—we present our list of the 10 most underrated tennis shoes ever. Here, finally, these forgotten classics are getting their due.
Reebok Court Victory Pump
What may have started in basketball quickly made its way to tennis and onto the feet of wonder kid Michael Chang. The Reebok Court Victory Pump gave Chang, fresh off a French Open championship at age 17, a singular on-court style in 1990. Using a fuzzy yellow tennis ball as the pumping mechanism in the tongue, coupled with Hexalite midsole technology that filled with air when inflated and a ’90s midcut style, the craze that was the Reebok Pump was as pronounced in tennis as it was basketball, if only briefly. While the Reebok Pump technology was hyped in basketball, the cultural significance of both Michael Chang and the marketing muscle Reebok put behind the tennis-centric style was not appreciated at the time.
The second-oldest sneaker manufacturer in the world, Sweden-based Tretorn, got its start in 1891. The canvas upper, born in 1902, came to play heavily in the 1930s and a rubber toe cap was key, but the 1967 launch of the canvas Nylite—Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova played the Slams in them—gave the world its first luxury tennis sneaker that was equally popular on the court and off, where it became a preppy staple in the ’80s. While Bjorg wore the shoe at Wimbledon in 1976, the presence of the silhouette in European fashion over the past decade has far surpassed many notable tennis styles, with Tretorn running fashion collaborations aplenty. Not only was Tretorn a key player in early tennis-sneaker manufacturing and style—the brand had multiple designs for the court—but the Nylite was the first tennis shoe to legit cross over into streetwear, a trend that continues to this day.
adidas Forest Hills
It was the late 1970s and adidas was looking to stir up tennis technology. The brand focused on the footbed, partnering with NASA for technology that created a durable yet ventilated outsole and a shoe weighing a superlight 8.7 ounces. adidas gave the shoe a fresh moniker, Forest Hills, after the original site of the US Open. They highlighted the outsole technology with a bright yellow colorway. Not only were some of the top players sporting the techy design, but the shoe quickly made its way to England, where it became a key fashion casual. The distinct look of the adidas Forest Hills has given the shoe a 50-year run as a style icon, but that aesthetic was also about the technologies of its day, offering a double dose of intrigue for this classic silhouette. So iconic was the shoe, yours truly even collaborated on a version for the 2020 US Open.
Wilson Pro Staff
Pete Sampras is long associated with the Wilson Pro Staff racquet, but he’s got a bit of history with the Wilson Pro Staff sneaker, too. The Wilson Pro Staff shoe debuted in 1986 and had a fresh take on durability and comfort, with its Goodyear Tires-made rubber outsole and PU leather midsole. Add in a leather upper, and the Pro Staff became the best-selling tennis shoe in the U.S. well into the 1990s. The Pro Staff sneaker eventually included a high-top version, a style with a mesh upper, and a full-grain leather option (this was rereleased in summer 2020).
Wilson offered the wearer a legitimacy in tennis with a classic streetwear style that gave those serious about the sport an on-court/off-court option that fit both performance and style, without simply following the trends of the big footwear manufacturers.
Nike Air Oscillate
Reenter Pete Sampras. While Andre Agassi garnered the major shoe buzz in the ’90s, the Nike Air Oscillate, first introduced in 1996, was a streamlined performance shoe unlike any other. Using a synthetic leather upper, a mesh tongue, and Zoom Air cushioning, this was a no-frills take on high-end performance. But to get there, famed Nike designer Tinker Hatfield had to trick Sampras into trying his creation during a pickup basketball game. Sampras loved them enough to take a chance on them, and once said the shoe was “everything I wanted it to be.”
The simplistic style, supreme comfort, and impressive performance gave the Nike Air Oscillate everything a classic style lover could want.
Those five stripes, a technology derived from the Swiss roots of the Kuenzli brand, offered the Los Angeles-based K-Swiss its unique aesthetic. But it was also a clever technology play that gave designers the ability to have supreme lacing control. While the K-Swiss Classic was one of the first leather tennis shoes, the 1989 launch of the Si-18 International, with its special silicone cushioning formula and heel counter for stability, had a burst of technology different from others in the game, winning it a Footwear News Sneaker of the Year award. Plus, what’s not to love about the stitching on the shoe of the flags of the four countries that host the Grand Slams?
K-Swiss has long had a pleasant mixture of technology and style in its tennis-sneaker game, and the singular aesthetic of the Si-18 International brought that to life.
Nike Air Resistance
Kevlar. Yeah, just having Kevlar on a tennis sneaker was enough to turn heads. Without ignoring the variations of the Air Challenge LWP, Challenge Court, Supreme Court, or even those Air Tech Challenge Huarachees, the 1995 debut of the Nike Air Resistance brought durability to play with Kevlar on the toe and showed how serious Nike was about remaining in the tennis-sneaker game. The shoe was also an early adopter of recycled rubber on the outsole, all part of the Nike Ndestrukt line meant to offer durability on punishing playgrounds. With so many classic Nike models from the 1990s, this one tends to get lost, even though it had one of the most technically forward designs.
Rubber companies have a long history in tennis sneakers, but French company Babolat brought Michelin to the game for the first time for the 2005 footwear launch from one of the most storied tennis brands of all times—Babolat was the first to make tennis racquet strings. The timing of Andy Roddick signing on with Babolat was pure serendipity for the brand, giving it the basis for both a powerful star behind the design and an influential collaboration for the outsole. Known for the Power Belt technology that gave Roddick and Propulse wearers a strap across the foot, the Propulse model still exists to this day. That Babolat is a relatively recent entry into tennis footwear doesn’t distract from the fact that it makes a high-quality shoe, and the launch of the Propulse was key in giving the brand the credibility it needed from the start.
Call this a two-for-one, with the original 1930s Dunlop Volley and Dunlop Green Flash shoes key silhouettes in tennis and a must-wear for any Australian player—the Volley was created in 1939 by Australian Davis Cup star Adrian Quist, who was also a Dunlop employee. Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and other Aussie greats have all worn it. Mark Edmondson won the 1976 Australian Open in the Volley. Even Stan Smith once tried the Volley because players on the tour raved about it so much. The Volley was known for its comfortable footbed and high-traction outsole. Padding around the shoe provided a comfort that was unmatched for the era. The Volley, now its own brand, still has a strong presence in Australia and was part of the official uniform for the country’s 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympic contingents, and celebrated a 2020 Australian Open collaboration. Not only did the Volley bring comfort to tennis early, it has been held in the highest regard in the world of Australian athletic fashion for decades.
New Balance Fresh Foam Lav
In the modern world, pristine on-court playability and off-court style haven’t always gone hand in hand, despite some notable exceptions. But one of the top-performing tennis shoes on the market today pairs with some classy attire, as New Balance’s Fresh Foam Lav—which debuted in December 2018—holds a peak position for modern-day excellence. The brand’s Fresh Foam cushioning had engineers dialing in the chemical compound for tennis-level stability. Add in a stitched upper that provides comfort and security, and New Balance has a flagship model in an otherwise impressive lineup. The understated style of New Balance is having an impact on the game, and that the Boston-based company produces one of the best performance sneakers available only adds to New Balance’s impressive, if underrated, catalog.
Tim Newcomb covers sneakers and style for Racquet. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.