Footwear: Where Rubber Meets the Road
Narrowing in on finding the right shoes for the right court surface.
By Kent Oswald
There is a heavily quixotic element to the story of a tennis sole. No challenge is conquered that doesn’t inspire a countervailing one. Or, as described by the ITF Sport Science & Medicine Commission, the challenge for the bottom of a tennis shoe is that:
A potential conflict exists between the optimisation of the frictional characteristics of the shoe-surface interaction when moving in a straight line and when turning. While sufficient friction to start and stop quickly is necessary when moving in a straight line, minimum friction is beneficial when pivoting, thus allowing rotation to occur as quickly as possible.
In other words, this often taken for granted element of a shoe must be able to grip in order to aid the sprint from behind the baseline to above the service line and must also enhance the quick pivot when the player is forced to move quickly from sideline to sideline. On clay — and increasingly on hard surfaces — the tread must also, within moments, be able to hold stable the foot needed to drive a stroke and provide the give needed to slide into the next stroke.
Relatedly, it is only one piece of the point of sale paradox that footwear be ever lighter to fit with player preference while also providing durability to match the price point acceptable to the purchaser. Does it even need to be added that unlike every other sport, tennis is played on multiple surfaces and even those are tweaked so that they often don’t play the same way year-to-year and very rarely facility to facility?
Shoes as Equipment
“Players should think of tennis shoes, not as something for style, but as equipment,” explains Dr. David Sharnoff, a noted podiatrist and consultant to touring pros and shoe manufacturers. In addition to the challenges of foot structure, and the coefficient of friction that varies by surface, the power player and finesse player have different requirements, as do the serve-and-volleyer and baseliner. “What I also emphasize,” adds Sharnoff, “is having at least two pairs — one as a training shoe and one as a game-day shoe.”
Unfortunately, retailers and manufacturers face the reality that most players don’t think of their shoes in the same way they think of their racquet or strings … and they almost never consider the tread as the salient point of attraction. It is only beneath the colors that entice is found the technology that competes.
Jerome Jackson, Prince’s global business director for footwear, notes a trend in favor of increased clay-court soles to match with clay courts, but throughout the American market, with play mostly on hard surfaces, an all-court shoe dominates, with narrower herringbone treads to grip better on hard courts, unlike shoes made for clay-court play that will usually have longer and wider herringbone treads to enhance glide while producing maintenance challenges resulting from digging up more of the court surface.
Head’s 2014 Sprint Pro is emblematic of the typical approach taken to try and address all the issues for all the once-every-year or so one-shoe customers. The all-court shoe — built with the expectation that it will be used primarily on hardcourts — features different patterns on the sole to create “slide and durability zones” on the inside forefoot and outside heel, and “grip zones” on the outside forefoot and inside heel. In the U.S., Head offers one outsole, with a thicker rubber compound and an emphasis on durability, while globally this is paired with a clay-court version featuring narrower herringbone tread. A grass-court tread featuring rubber pimples — and in the same pattern as every manufacturer by virtue of ITF rules — is available to players under contract.
The Next Generation?
“I don’t think the big boys have created something unique in the last few years,” says Sharnoff. The shoes are of high quality — although he does recommend players pay attention to an educated sales staff when shopping and customize the inside with orthotics to ensure the best fit to foot type and playing style. But he believes manufacturers have similar access to materials and technology and that we are currently in a holding pattern waiting for the next-gen of kicks that can support and enhance perhaps 160 pounds of player on top of 10 or 11 ounces of leather, rubber and foam.
Perhaps because there is no single standard by which players can measure tread durability or response — and most every name manufacturer can rightly claim a solid foundation for their shoe — what has stood out these last few years for customers has been the reduction of weight. “Customers are aware of the lightness of shoes, remarking on it as soon as they put it on [and] willing to pay for lightness over durability,” says Harry Tong, shoe buyer for Brad Gilbert’s Tennis Nation store in San Rafael, Calif. In what may be a sign of an improving economy, he says adult customers (but not those buying for teen boys who need that six-month outsole guarantee) are influenced by weight. They have an attitude that, “When I burn a hole through it I’m going to buy a second pair.”
Which leads, in terms of sales, to the regret that too few players can imagine following the lead of Alexander Dolgopolov, who after upsetting Milos Raonic at this year’s BNP Paribas Open tossed his shoes into the stands, admitting, “It’s better to throw them to people than throw them in the [trash]. I slide a lot, and when I drag my left leg and the court is sticky, I go through one pair of shoes in a match.”
More reasonably, with a current trend and near-term outlook that technological progress will feature more color splashes, incremental weight reduction and progressive tinkering with the materials, technologies and tread patterns for hard- and clay-court shoes, perhaps the future could hold a new industry educational campaign to inspire players to think a bit harder about the tread that is, ultimately, the foundation of their game. Or at least spark a regular pattern of purchasing or a “rule of thumb” among players to have as many tennis shoes available as (for example) racquets one carries to court.
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.