The Shoe That Refuses to Die

By Tim Newcomb

Recreational players loudly and frequently bemoan the loss of the largely killed-off Vapor tennis sneaker line, but pros—the likes of Serena Williams, Simona Halep, and Denis Shapovalov, to name just a few—appear to have unlimited stores of the shoe and increasingly seem to be wearing them on court. Their attachment to them is easy to unpack: The beloved shoe was just good, comfortable out of the box, and stylish, and its various colorways were easy to match with any tennis kit. Or so it would seem. 

No question, the Nike Vapor shoe line is storied. More Grand Slam tennis titles have been won in the Vapor line than in any other shoe, even if Roger Federer helps bolster that stat. With the release of the Vapor 5 and 6, the shoe grew in popularity, and the Fed-adjacency pushed it across the finish line. Then legendary sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield created the Vapor 9 in 2012 with Federer at his side. The Vapor 9.5 followed, and then the Vapor X, released in 2017, leading to a dedicated following at the top levels of the pro game.   

When the Vapor Pro replaced the X during the pandemic, it landed with a thud.  

Alex Restivo, a former Nike footwear product director who led the Vapor X charge, says creating a new shoe after the popularity of the Vapor 9 was a difficult project. Inside any innovation-led company you’ve got to balance promoting new innovations with listening to the athlete. This can prove difficult in a traditional sport like tennis, where a lot of athletes may not want new. “At first, the athletes hated the Vapor X,” he says. 

The complexities around this process, especially with the fact that 95 percent of all pro tennis players are wearing custom-made orthotics, meant Nike had an entire team of staff traveling the tour to acclimate players to the new version, taking in feedback along the way and tweaking the design, even working with doctors to get players new, better-fitting orthotics. And with about 200 of the 250 Nike-sponsored athletes in the Vapor line at the time, there was plenty of work to be done. But what helped was that the X was very similar in structure to its predecessor. The main changes were improved traction and a more aggressive look with the “claw” fingers grabbing the side of the foot. So it checked all the boxes.  

Hatfield has called the Vapor 9 the most underrated tennis shoe of all time. “That was the shoe we cracked the code with,” he told me in an interview for Complex last year. “Roger is no longer a Nike athlete, but I worked with him a lot, and he always said he wanted a tennis shoe more like a running shoe: lighter weight, more breathable, and a little bit more flexible.” 

The release of the Vapor Pro brought more changes. Nike’s well-publicized company reorganization meant that the days of having an entire footwear team dedicated to only tennis were over. Tennis shoes make up a scant 0.1% of all sports shoe sales in the U.S., according to data from Matt Powell, analyst with The NPD Group, so many of the big athletic shoemakers were left without a dedicated tennis team. Add in the pandemic and there was not only less of a focus on the sport, but no real ability to work day to day with athletes. 

The current Nike shoe lineup features eight silhouettes, six priced at a level that focuses on serious players. They killed off the 2018-released Zoom Zero within two years, the first with a full-length Zoom Air cushioning, replacing it in 2020 with the Naomi Osaka-worn GP Turbo (now only available in Osaka designs for women).  

The somewhat unpopular new kid on the block: the Air Zoom Vapor Pro. (Courtesy of Nike)
The somewhat unpopular new kid on the block: the Air Zoom Vapor Pro. (Courtesy of Nike)

Just one of the models available, the Vapor Pro, follows the pattern of the lightweight, low-profile Vapor X with Zoom Air in the heel. The Zoom NXT features Zoom Air in the forefoot and a propulsion plate. The Zoom Vapor Cage (offered for men) is similar but with more heft and support, and the Zoom Pro drops the level of technology. The React Vapor NXT highlights the brand’s React foam. 

This continual shifting within the brand in terms of product means you have not only some athletes who never made the switch to either the Vapor Pro or other models—Grigor Dimitrov still plays in the Vapor 9—but others who are now going back to the X. This could be a combination of players simply sticking with a product they love and others switching back to what was comfortable, especially if coming off an injury or not playing well. Of course, some may simply be waiting for the next iteration—we are seeing Paula Badosa already wearing what is likely the next in the Vapor line—before making the switch.

From Halep to Shapovalov and Sloane Stephens to Thanasi Kokkinakas, the list of players in the Vapor X continues to grow, not shrink. Williams, who has practiced in the X for about three years, even if she competed in a different model, took the court in Toronto in the X.  

The Tennis Warehouse message board is alive in 2022 with folks questioning the Vapor line’s current status and calling for a return of the 9, 9.5, or X. Commenters say the Vapor Pros simply don’t have the lateral support and that the fit is different. Many want the feel of the Xs. But as one commenter summed it up, don’t expect it to happen: “But who are we kidding, these will never make it back to mass market even if it’s for a limited run especially for a tech-forward company like Nike,” they write. “The purists would love this, but the majority of consumers still look forward to the latest and greatest offerings from any company.”

While there’s still a chance Nike supplies some players with old models—they already custom-make products for the top players, such as Williams and Rafael Nadal, so they have the capability to create past products—typically players wearing the Vapor X are dipping into a past stash.  

At each Slam, Nike players get eight new pairs of shoes in that tournament’s colorway. Some athletes may wear one pair per match and blow through all eight or give them away. Other athletes may wear just one pair and have hoarded the other seven. So, when you see the likes of Halep wearing a 2020 Australian Open colorway, you know she’s squirreled some away.  

For fans of the Vapor X, maybe Nike will take notice of the trends. If not, hopefully they have a healthy reserve of a much-loved line.

Above: Serena in Toronto, where she dug in the crates for a still crisp pair of Vapor Xs. (Getty) 

Tim Newcomb covers sneakers, gear, and stadiums from the Pacific Northwest, where he has written regularly for Sports IllustratedTimePopular MechanicsWired, and more.

Issue No. 19