The One That Felt Right

Nike’s Air Trainer, Made Famous by McEnroe and Agassi, Celebrates 35 Years
By Tim Newcomb

Thirty-five years on, the rebellious nature of John McEnroe lives on with the celebration of a tennis sneaker he made famous. 

There’s one catch, though: It wasn’t really a tennis sneaker. And McEnroe wasn’t intended to make it famous. Such is the story of the Nike Air Trainer 1, a shoe closely tied to three of the biggest names in tennis fashion history: McEnroe, Andre Agassi, and architect–turned–shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, the man behind the Air Jordan 3 and creator of Agassi’s Air Tech Challenge 2, Pete Sampras’ Air Oscillate, and the Vapor line—may it rest in peace—made legendary by Roger Federer. 

The Air Trainer 1 story starts in the mid-1980s before an all-around training shoe was a thing. Hatfield changed all that. Inspired by a trip to the gym—which required toting multiple sport-specific models—Hatfield decided to create a pair of shoes viable for both the court and the gym, crafting a prototype with a higher cut and lateral outrigger design for stability and support, with a heel lift higher than the typical basketball shoe but lower than the average running shoe that included Nike Air cushioning and a midfoot strap for lockdown. Hatfield even cased his design in the black, gray, white, and “chlorophyll” green colors from the gym equipment that inspired him.  

While that creation eventually became known as the 1987 release of the Air Trainer 1 “Chlorophyll,” the sneaker’s big moment came earlier, thanks to McEnroe. 

Returning in 1986 from a leave from tennis, McEnroe was eager to get back into the game. He worked with Nike to find a sneaker to fit his needs—the Mac Attack was released in 1984, so by ’86 he was ready for the next thing. “By chance, when the guys at Nike sent me a bunch of different prototypes to try, there was this throwaway one that they weren’t even planning on sending me,” McEnroe said in 2015. “And it turned out being the one, to me, that was the most awesome.”

Hatfield didn’t know it, but McEnroe was sent an early Air Trainer 1, asked specifically not to wear them in a tournament but just try them out when training. McEnroe disregarded the request. “Once they were on, I was like, ‘Sorry, guys, this is the one, we have to go with this, we have to reverse field here,’” McEnroe said. “This one felt really right.” 

McEnroe then went to Los Angeles and won his first tournament back. In the Air Trainer 1. Then he won his next one. 

“It was a jaw-dropping experience for me because I didn’t know he was going to wear them,” Hatfield said years after the release. “Nobody did. He wasn’t supposed to. He just did.” 

McEnroe requested more, so Nike made special player-edition models designed with outsoles specific to clay and grass.

The shoe was released as a trainer in 1987, but the Air Trainer 1 retained its tennis credibility when Andre Agassi, a new Nike signee in 1988, wore the Air Trainer 1 in his first match with Nike. 

The marketing of the Air Trainer 1 then took a different turn—more in line with the original plan—and became the line “Bo Knows,” the slogan leading the Bo Jackson campaign. By then the sneaker’s tennis pedigree was well established.

A Modern-Day Act

The Air Trainer 1 has cache in the sneaker world, partly because of the funky origin story, partly because of the connections to McEnroe, Agassi, and Jackson, and partly (mainly?) because the revered Hatfield created an entirely new category of cross-trainer sneakers with one shoe. 

Either way, we’ve seen the Air Trainer 1 gain retro releases over the years, sometimes in the original Chlorophyll colorway and other times in new or differing takes. Nike has never strayed far from the Air Trainer 1, first bringing about retro versions in the early 2000s under the Nike SB line. Those lasted off and on throughout the decade and again in the decade to follow. In 2015, Nike teamed with Fragment Design for some special-edition colorways timed around the US Open. The first time Nike remade the Chlorophyll was in 2012, the 25th anniversary of the shoe. Nike SB did its own take on the colorway in 2020.  

Now, as Nike celebrates the 35th anniversary of the famed trainer, it has embraced the shoe anew. 

We’ve already seen the release of “utility” versions of the shoe that give it a “futuristic and utilitarian aesthetic,” the brand says. The Dark Smoke Grey, Coriander, and Light Smoke Grey-Honeydew colorways industrialized the foot strap with a snap closure and added reflective graphics and iridescent accents. With plenty of additional detailing—added materials and cosmetic renderings—the Air Trainer 1 certainly took on a more modern aesthetic. 

Nike planned a Travis Scott-designed range of Air Trainer 1s somewhat in line with the utility ethos. Scott’s releases were in question since the tragic events of his November 2021 concert in Houston, but his Grey Haze and Light Chocolate designs were released on May 27.

Futuristic utility isn’t the only path forward for an anniversary look-back. Overseas there’s already been a flurry of Air Trainer 1 releases. The first was the Photon Dust, a retro white-and-gray design of the 1987 original that adds in nubuck leather. The Photon Dust will have a U.S. release June 2. Overseas we’ve seen a Midnight Navy version, a nod to an original 1988 colorway, and a new Enamel Green that plays up suede in a light green. Expect those in the U.S. later.

Of course, no anniversary is complete without the rerelease of the original Chlorophyll colorway, which immediately sold out on May 20. Thirty-five years later and Nike’s still celebrating the tennis legacy of one of its most famous category-busting Hatfield creations.

Tim Newcomb covers sneakers and style for Racquet. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.