By Tim Newcomb
The Nike Air Zoom Vapor X release offers a look at a performance sneaker dominating the game and the history of a franchise touched by tennis and design greats
When Roger Federer held aloft the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after winning the 2018 Australian Open wearing a pair of hot pink Nike Vapor X sneakers, it was not only his 20th major title, but his 18th wearing some iteration of the Nike Vapor sneaker.
In fact, no other tennis sneaker has produced more major singles championship wins in the modern age than the Vapor franchise, a statistic bolstered by Federer’s unprecedented run of success.
As arguably the greatest men’s tennis player of all time worked his magic on the court, he also worked with possibly the greatest sneaker designer of all time, Nike’s Tinker Hatfield, to evolve the Vapor line, building on a celebrated performance tradition that recently culminated with the 10th edition of the shoe, the 2018 Nike Air Zoom Vapor X, a design meant to continue to please its longtime adherents while exciting an entirely new crop of Vapor-wearing players, such as Nick Kyrgios, Jack Sock, Madison Keys, and too many others to keep track of.
The Vapor franchise pushed its way onto the tennis scene with the launch of the Nike Air Zoom Vapor Speed in 2004. Fourteen years later, 81 percent of Nike athletes—more than 200 players—wear the Vapor franchise.
The standard-bearer, however, is Federer.
Nick Kyrgios summed it up: “He’s the greatest of all time, so he makes them look pretty cool.”
The Vapor series became synonymous with Federer when he switched to the Vapor Speed upon its debut, in time to win his second Wimbledon in 2004, the third major title of his career. He’s stayed in them ever since, playing a major role in the 2012 revamp of the line for the Nike Zoom Vapor 9 Tour, created by Hatfield, the legendary Nike designer behind the Air Jordan III—the shoe that introduced both the Jumpman logo and elephant print to sneaker culture—as well as more than a dozen additional Jordans, Air Maxes, Agassi’s Air Tech Challenge II, Sampras’ Air Oscillate, and McEnroe’s Air Trainer 1, among others.
“It became a great-looking shoe, and I felt it was a new beginning for tennis shoes,” Federer said of the original partnership with Hatfield. “It was lightweight, durable, good-looking, and I think it had incredible potential to evolve its looks. I still love it.”
Hatfield clearly remembers how the Vapor line took a major step forward with the direct insight of Federer. Hatfield said he worked out with Roger and noticed that all of his off-court training was in a running shoe. “Traditionally, tennis shoes are heavy and stiff, and he challenged us to try to make a tennis shoe that was more like a running shoe—with great traction and durability, but lightweight and comfortable,” Hatfield said.
Then came a meeting in a Paris hotel room following a match at Roland Garros in 2010. Hatfield said that during the entire hour he chatted with Federer about his concept of a lighter tennis shoe, he was drawing on a new iPad (this was when iPads were brand new). “While he was talking, I was designing,” Hatfield said. “When the conversation finished, he was excited about the possibilities, and he asked when I thought I could get back to him. I turned my iPad around and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ He looked at it and said, ‘Yes, yes, that’s it! That’s what we should do.’ That very design became the [Vapor 9 Tour]. That was a fun moment.”
Using adaptive-fit construction with “fingers” of soft material wrapping the midfoot and arch from underneath, the Vapor 9 quickly took over as the pinnacle in the Nike line, offering a distinct on-court aesthetic that Hatfield says borrowed from the Jordan 23 and “broke the mold for what tennis shoes could look like.” The updated Nike Vapor 9.5 Tour continued that tradition, as has the Vapor X, never losing sight of Federer’s original vision.
“We took Roger Federer’s insight of wanting a running shoe for the tennis court—something light and breathable to train in, but supportive to play tennis in,” Alex Restivo, footwear product director for NikeCourt, said. “It is still an insight we hold true in the Vapor franchise. We are still creating for Roger Federer.”
Restivo said that with tennis getting faster, hitting becoming harder, and players sliding on all surfaces, the Vapor needed to evolve with more control, durability, and traction. So he took the design team into Nike’s biomechanics lab at the company’s headquarters in Oregon to run computer simulations on traction patterns and wear zones to get the right material and design for every aspect of the sneaker. That insight led to a multidirectional pattern on the outsole—an update from the traditional herringbone design found on the 9.5—allowing athletes to play on the edges. Then designers enhanced the already popular foot frame (you know, the one that looks like a claw) to give a more aggressive play on internal foot stability.
Air has always proved prominent in the Vapor line. Zoom Air, a style that features highly tensioned fibers inside the airbag to ensure the bag doesn’t wear down and returns to its shape after each use, has long served as the cushioning choice for the line. The X follows suit.
For durability, Nike explored all types of materials for the X, but in the end used a wear-zone map—with the help of testing from Keys and Sock—to create a new rubber toe cap, building up rubber in high-wear areas.
As the rubber grew stronger, the foot frame more aggressive, Restivo and Vapor X designer Michael Hui switched to the use of engineered mesh for the sneaker’s upper, providing more breathability. “You can almost tell how the game has changed just by looking at the Vapor 9.5 upper and comparing it to this new upper,” Hui told Racquet. “They’re playing at a much more intense rate.”
Federer said a “good tennis shoe needs to lend itself well to all different conditions and environments.” But he also wants strength to withstand the lateral movement and traction to slide a touch on hard courts: “It’s quite a particular thing, the shoe. That’s why we pay a lot of attention to it and how we can make it better.”
“As soon as I put them on, I thought they were super comfortable,” Madison Keys said. “I didn’t really feel like I had to break them in, which is always really nice as a tennis player.” For an athlete who wants lightweight breathability with comfort and security, Keys says the Vapor X has proved ideal as she rotates between two or three pairs of shoes for a Slam—one for matches and one for practice.
Restivo said the Vapor X demonstrated an exercise in restraint, improving specific areas of the franchise while paying homage to the iconic design cues and fit. Hui used the same last (the mold used to form a shoe) so as not to throw off the current crop of wearers. “Because 80 percent of our athletes wear it, we have a crazy blend of legends and next-generation players,” Restivo said. “We cater to both their needs.”
“The design is really based on performance,” Hui said. “It’s based on fit, feel, and durability. I like to say the Vapor X looks the way it does because of the way it works. We didn’t put too much on the shoe for decoration’s sake. It also has a sleekness and a stance and proportion that is very modern.”
Keys and Federer have been testing the sneaker since March 2017, part of a two-plus-year design process. Hatfield said Federer’s willingness to change sneakers and not let superstition get in the way has helped others to adopt the Vapor. Federer, who said that improvements mean he no longer needs to wear in a shoe but can “pull a fresh pair of the Vapor Xs out of the box and play five sets, no problem,” has been running through a new pair every three or four matches.
Throughout the history of the line, Federer has, what he calls, “trusted the material” put in front of him, such as the addition of the Zoom Vapor 9.5 Tour Flyknit in 2016. “Kobe [Bryant] led the way there, getting into the Flyknits,” he said. “I felt like if Kobe on a basketball court could do it, then probably in tennis we could do it too. But I had some of the best moments in the Flyknit, particularly last year when I won the Australian Open and Wimbledon.”
Over on the women’s side, Maria Sharapova has been the torchbearer for the Vapor. “It has always been about finding a shoe that is low to the ground, weightless, but supportive enough on lateral movement,” she said. “I really like how seamless they feel on my foot, something I like in all the shoes I wear.”
Nick Kyrgios has worn the Vapor line for about five years because they feel “low to the ground and tight around my foot.” Also, he said, “I think it looks cool. Obviously, Roger wears it. What they’re doing with it now, they can do so much with it cosmetically. And they’re only getting better. I’m not going to wear any other shoe for a while, that’s for sure.”
With players like Federer and Sharapova pioneering the franchise, designers have emphasized aesthetics, too.
Sharapova puts thought into her style, using sneakers to replace jewelry as her main on-court accessory. “Having a shoe that adds a nice touch and puts everything together or adds a contrast is a nice way to finish off the design process,” she said.
The Russian most appreciates the “striking” lines of the X, athletic but in an understated way while framing the foot well visually. If given say in future colors, expect Sharapova to lean toward her favorite neutrals, such as gray, rose, olive green and dark teal. “I think what I like about different pairs that match the outfits is how color combinations can really change the look or appeal of a shoe,” she said. “It’s always about creating a colorway that becomes a visual focus point. When someone asks the question whether that is the same shoe, but all that has been changed is the color, that’s when you know you’ve created something visual and different despite it being the same exact style.”
Along with changing colorways, the Vapor X will soon embark on a fresh slate of collaborations, not always the case with tennis sneakers. We can thank Federer and Sharapova for that crossover appeal. While Roger winning in Wimbledon in 2004 and Sharapova grabbing the US Open title in 2006, both in Vapors, gave the line its first defining moments, Restivo said, Vapor’s culture story really took off with the Vapor 9 and Hatfield’s influence.
Hatfield took a cue from the banned black and red (“bred”) Jordan sneaker of 1984—too much color for the NBA at the time—and put an orange sole on the Vapor 9 for Federer at Wimbledon 2013. He wore it one 69-minute match before it was no longer welcome on court. In 2015, Sharapova collaborated with Parisian boutique Colette on a Vapor design. But nothing hit sneaker culture harder than when Federer worked with Hatfield in 2014 for the Zoom Vapor 9 Tour x Air Jordan III collaboration that gave the Vapor the famed Jordan elephant print on court at the US Open. Federer pulled out a similar AJIII collaboration for the Vapor 9.5 during the first two rounds of the 2017 US Open.
“It was so cool to hear that a Swiss athlete who played tennis idolized Michael Jordan as a young kid,” Hatfield said. “So when we thought about giving the Vapor RF some Jordan DNA, it was really cool to have those guys meet, arguably the two best players in their respective sports, and collaborate on a shoe. That was definitely a defining [Vapor] moment.”
Federer says the Jordan collabs, certainly, and the wide-ranging colorways on the 9 and 9.5 proved “cool,” along with smaller projects. “I remember a Savile Row pair we did for London ,” he said. “I liked that one a lot, too. It was totally different, a turquoise blue and plaid homage to the English shoemaking industry. I definitely started to take more chances with the shoes and knew that they could stand alone and not necessarily connect to the outfit.”
Using the history of collaboration as the basis for the Vapor X launch, the “bred” colorway of the X pays tribute to the Jordan connection. “When talking to Madison, Jack, Nick, and Roger as our muses for the shoe, one common thread is they love Brand Jordan,” Restivo says. “Nick walks onto the court in a different pair of Jordans every time. We wanted athletes to see this as a tennis shoe with basketball vibes.”
For the 2018 Australian Open, Nike introduced the striking hot pink “lava glow” and rose-colored “crimson tint” shoes and kits to contrast with the blue courts in Melbourne.
“This year’s Australian Open had so many exciting moments, but as a fashion watcher, what was most striking was all of the pink,” said Vogue style editor Edward Barsamian. “Roger Federer led the pack in his Vapors, which grounded his elegant ensembles in black, white, and blush with the perfect punctuation.”
The Australian Open kit was reminiscent of the colors favored by Andre Agassi in his “Image is everything” heyday, and added some flair to matches in which Federer steamrolled his opponents. “For those not playing on center court,” said Barsamian, “the Vapor is refined enough to pair with everything from black jeans to a pin-striped suit. The streamlined silhouette is sleek, and here’s hoping more people [on and off the courts] start to think pink.”
Federer, while giving the Vapor X a perfect one tournament played/one tournament won record, told Jim Courier on court following an Australian Open victory that his interest in pink played heavily in Melbourne. Whether it’s his apparel, his Vapor X, or the rest of the NikeCourt collection, Federer’s pink was powerful.
“The designing part is fun,” he said. “A lot of guys playing pink, it is maybe because I had something to do with it. Other guys said yes too, the likes of Rafa and so forth. We change our outfits 10 to 12 times a year, and it gives us an opportunity to look different, feel different in different places.”
For his first use of the Vapor X, Federer not only went pink, but added a “5” for the number of Australian Open trophies he had earned at that point, next to a heel emblem depicting Flinders Street Station—the tournament wouldn’t let him put the Norman Brookes trophy on the sneaker as he originally desired.
“The trophy was on there once upon a time, but it is all good,” Federer said. “The tournament has got to do what it has got to do. I like the station better,” he told Courier.
Nike is tight-lipped about what’s in store for the Vapor X, but look for new colorways and new collaborations with designers and looks from outside the traditional boundaries of the sport. “We want to continue to explore,” Restivo said, “and get more eyes on tennis.”
Above: A sketch of the Nike Air Zoom Vapor X; The Nike Air Zoom Vapor Speed helped give the Vapor line credibility with Roger Federer as a powerful ambassador; Roger Federer first collaborated with Michael Jordan with a Nike Zoom Vapor 9.5 styled in Air Jordan 3 elements in 2014. A second round of collaborations released in 2017; The Nike Air Zoom Vapor X saw its first major tournament action in Australia in 2018. Roger Federer won the championship in the hot-pink player-edition version. (All images courtesy of Nike)
Tim Newcomb covers sneakers, gear, and stadiums from the Pacific Northwest, where he has written regularly for Sports Illustrated, Time, Popular Mechanics, Wired, and more.