Sneakers are having a moment in fashion right now, but tennis fans know that top players around the world have been leading the way in footwear style for years. Here, we factor in every element of design, history and tech to find the 10 best tennis sneakers of all time.
Sneakers are having a moment in fashion right now, but tennis fans know that top players around the world have been leading the way in footwear style for years. This is a list about coolness—part historical cool, part tech-styling cool and part old-fashioned cool—and in honor of this, we countdown the 10 coolest on-court sneakers designed for tennis stars. Not every shoe below was a signature model but only sneakers created specifically for a single player were included. This list factors in every element of design, history and tech to find the 10 best tennis sneakers. Because, you know, they are cool.
10. Adidas Rod Laver
Athlete: Rod Laver
Canvas had its place. Then leather. But nobody brought us suede until Adidas launched the Rod Laver signature sneaker in the 1970s. Along with the suede on the toe, the Australian star took to the court in a polyurethane outsole—a new tech at the time—and a mesh upper. Really, the Laver was the first tennis sneaker that made tech worth seeking. Add in the staying power of this sneaker and the Rod Laver line has offered decades of releases to keep us happy.
9. Converse Chris Evert
Athlete: Chris Evert
Is it proper to argue with your own list? On one hand, the Converse Chris Evert has a simplistic design that doesn’t scream for inclusion. But there are always two sides to the story and this classic look from Converse in the 1980s hit the mark for Evert, giving her a noteworthy signature sneaker. The largely all-white model includes hints of grey around the toe and offers us the classic Converse chevron and star logo prominent in light blue on the side. The “Evert” on the tongue reminds us which great tennis star the sneaker celebrates.
8. Puma GV Special
Athlete: Guillermo Vilas
Puma hasn’t stopped producing this on-court/off-court hybrid since introducing the Puma GV Special to the world of signature shoes in the 1980s. Made for the flashy Argentine, Puma mixed together leather and textiles on the upper for a performance driven shoe that didn’t lose sight of fashion. But the best part of the GV Special has come in recent years, as Puma has played with modern and vintage colors, mixing up materials, Puma stripes and fashion-forward designs.
7. NikeCourt Flare
Athlete: Serena Williams
The first on-court shoe designed specifically for Serena Williams offered a new aesthetic for tennis when it debuted in time for Wimbledon 2015. Nike allowed the World No. 1 to have a hand in the design and since Serena won her 21st major title, we’ve since seen Nike continue with a similar style with this year’s Air Zoom Ultrafly. Williams worked directly with designer Aaron Cooper to create a sneaker focused on lightweight support, featuring a neoprene sleeve for Williams’ ankle that connects to an internal bootie. That combination allowed Williams to opt for composite materials designed for breathability and durability in a package that created a new on-court look for tennis.
6. Adidas B.J. King (color velour)
Athlete: Billie Jean King
There’s nothing cooler than being the first. And Billie Jean King holds that title in so many areas, including the first female tennis player to have a signature sneaker. Adidas took its 1970s classic low-top tennis silhouette in white with a rubber outsole, clad it in three light blue stripes and then scripted King’s signature on the side. With the “endorsed by” tongue showing King’s face and the signature written in blues and golds, the line had some variety. But it didn’t stop there, as Adidas extended the King signature line to create the first-ever “colored velour” tennis sneaker.
5. Nike Air Trainer 1
Athlete: John McEnroe
Nike designer Tinker Hatfield may not have known he was designing one of the coolest tennis sneakers of all time in 1986. But he did. While working with John McEnroe, Hatfield sent the American star an unreleased trainer—later dubbed the Nike Air Trainer 1—in a batch of sneakers, asking him to not wear it in public. But McEnroe did just that. With a higher heel lift than seen before in tennis, lateral support and a foot-securing strap, McEnroe made this trainer-turned-tennis look stellar on the court during several tournaments. Modern color-forward designs have only served to enhance the sweetness factor ever since.
4. Le Coq Noah Star
Athlete: Yannick Noah
Yannick Noah had a different sort of flare on the tennis court, so it was fitting that his sneakers fit that persona. The Le Coq Noah Star debuted in the mid-1980s, one of the few shoes the French brand put out with the help of the dreadlocked Noah. The shoe itself helped merge '80s fashion to tennis with color blocking, material overlays, a tech-forward heel stabilizer and a prominent Le Coq rooster logo. While certainly not the only shoe to stretch beyond tennis culture, the Noah Star did so with a distinctly French style.
3. Adidas Stan Smith
Athlete: Stan Smith
Leather was so sophisticated in the 1960s—"an upgrade from the other shoes,” Stan Smith says. Adidas introduced the material on the Robert Haillet-endorsed shoe, the first leather alternative to canvas to hit the courts. But Smith soon took over the endorsement of the shoe, which used perforated holes for the three stripes and is the most classic and streamlined tennis silhouette likely ever made. The Stan Smith took tennis culture well beyond the courts and is still an iconic shoe over 50 years later. With so many styles of Stan Smith to choose from, there’s simply a material, color and design to fit every occasion. (Although the 2015 U.S. Open version with tennis ball fuzz on the heel tab is our favorite.)
2. NikeCourt Vapor 9.5 x Air Jordan 3
Athlete: Roger Federer
Roger Federer meet Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan meet Roger Federer. The two mega-stars connected in 2014 to give us the Vapor AJ3, an amalgamation of the Nike Zoom Vapor 9.5 tennis shoe and the classic Air Jordan 3 basketball sneaker. The Hatfield-designed Vapor line has spent time on the feet of some of the modern game’s most storied stars, and while never a Federer signature, the Vapor 9 was designed in conjunction with Federer, placing his fingerprints all over the sneaker. But when Nike/Jordan took sneaker culture into the heart of tennis performance for the shoe Federer wore during the 2014 U.S. Open we enjoyed one of the best mixes of tennis and culture ever seen.
1. Nike Air Tech Challenge II (Hot Lava)
Athlete: Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi pushed tennis fashion like no other player—of his era or otherwise. Nike played right into that in the late 1980s, giving the young player his own style, complete with “hot lava” paint splatter inspired by Agassi’s ability to pound the ball from the baseline. When Hatfield and Agassi teamed up on the Air Tech Challenge II they put performance first—the synthetic leather used was lighter than most shoes of the era, but it was still durable. An external molded heel counter improved fit and comfort and the visible and flexible two-piece Nike Air system added cushioning. And style wasn’t far behind. The Air Tech Challenge II went higher in silhouette and bolder with colors, a deviation from the norm for tennis. “I always wanted to wear the shoes off court, but at the time I worried they would attract too much attention,” Agassi says of his shoes. Today, they still grab our attention.
Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—stadiums, sneakers and more—for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.