Tennis Footwear: Performance Artists
With an eye toward making more of a performance and technology splash, new tennis shoes look to balance durability, weight and speed.
By Bob McGee
After a decade where innovation often took a back seat to marketing the game’s biggest on-court stars in Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, tennis shoe makers are vowing to make a bigger statement with their performance footwear products.
New offerings aim to strike the perfect balance among durability, weight and speed. And in the immediate seasons to come, look for traditional tennis brand Wilson to push the innovation envelope and the kingpin athletic brands Nike and Adidas to incorporate more technologies and materials from their other athletic footwear categories into tennis.
“In many cases, we are designing for a game trend, more aggressive play on hard courts,” says Mike Hymer, a business manager for Head USA. “And we’re adapting to that style.”
Still, Hymer is the first to admit that there has always been a trade-off between lightweight and durability in a shoe. But the one-time rule of thumb that said the lighter a tennis shoe the less durable it is has begun to wane due to advancements in upper and midsole materials. Shoe manufacturers’ newfound approach also includes improvements in shoe construction methods and better rubber compounds.
And Antoine Oui, product line manager for Wilson footwear, points out that the design of an outsole can also have a significant impact on the durability of a shoe. To that end, another brand, Head, incorporates a “slide and durability zone” on the medial forefoot and lateral heel of its new Sprint Pro that provides more rubber material and less profile depths.
Nike borrows materials from its popular soccer and basketball designs via a synthetic leather and mesh upper to reduce weight yet provide a supportive fit for the player in the new Lunar Ballistec. The shoe, which also utilizes the brand’s Flywire technology to wrap the midfoot and arch and a full-length Lunarlon midsole for added cushioning, weighs in at only 13 ounces for a men’s size 10.
“Our primary objective was to design … a shoe that makes players faster to the ball,” says Michael Hui, senior designer of tennis footwear for Nike. “It wasn’t about making a shoe lighter at all costs.”
A key focus of performance athletic shoe developers today, including those designing tennis, is reducing weight wherever possible without sacrificing the product’s durability, contends Mark Eggert, vice president of Advance Concepts and Footwear Design for Fila. The Italian brand accomplishes that goal in the toe area of its new Sentinel shoe with an injected polyurethane material on the toe box area that guards against excessive wear caused by toe drag.
Adidas, which recently launched the eighth-generation of its popular Barricade first introduced in 2000, has a couple of technologies/materials in its athletic toolbox that may soon find their way into performance tennis footwear. Springblade technology, 16 high-grade polymer blades used in the midsole/outsole for energy return and support, was introduced in high-end running last year. But the tech faces a category crossover obstacle given that it can’t currently be configured for the rigors of bi-directional footwear movement needed in tennis. Boost technology, perhaps as early as 2015 tennis shoe models, is a better bet. Boost, used in a shoe’s midsole, consists of thousands of small pebbles of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) currently found in the dashboards of BMWs, and is lightweight while providing a level of superior cushioning.
For its part, Wilson, too, wants to be an innovator in performance tennis shoes and is promising to introduce a new shoe concept with durability tie-in after the US Open and before year-end. The brand’s current Rush Pro was introduced in new colorways in time for the Australian Open.
Backing it Up
Most performance tennis shoe brands offer a six-month warranty on their premium models in the U.S. and make every effort to assist retailers and pro shops in policing consumer returns. Shoe warranties run longer in Europe, typically two years, in part due to the softer playing surfaces there. Wilson’s Oui says his company’s rate of return has typically been “way below” 1 percent of sales.
At Adidas North America, Dave Malinowski, category manager for tennis, says Adidas tennis customers are directed to send any warranty-issue shoes directly back to the company “to take all of the (warranty) burdens off the shoulders of the tennis retailer.”
Hymer acknowledges that there is some consumer abuse of tennis shoe warranties today, but adds that 95 percent of today’s claims are probably legitimate, with “nothing outrageous” passing through the pipeline. Still, Head USA personnel continue to monitor and oversee the process.
But most tennis-shoe manufacturers don’t need to spend vast amounts of their time on warranty issues, which is a very good thing because now, they can continue to give performance tennis footwear more attention.