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The development of the tennis shoe

From humble beginnings as a simple plimsoll to the modern technical performance shoe.

by Mike Wilson

Image © Orangeline |

The game of tennis can be traced back to the royal courts of France in the 14th century but, of course, it was a very different game then to what we know now. The original game, retrospectively referred to as ‘real tennis’, is still played at a small number of clubs preserving the historic game which was played in an enclosed court and where the ball was allowed to bounce off the walls.

The rules of Lawn tennis – the game we are familiar with – were set down in 1874. The equipment and footwear then was very rudimentary. The game was played on grass as the name implies, but today it is played mainly on hard surfaces as grass courts become increasingly scarce due to seasonal growing conditions and maintenance costs.

The early shoes worn for tennis featured a canvas or leather upper fastened with laces, and with a flat rubber sole. A number of inventors have been credited with various stages of the style’s evolution. The invention of vulcanised rubber made the tennis shoe possible and, according to some historical sources, the Liverpool Rubber Company founded by John Dunlop, produced the first rubber-soled shoe in the early 19th century.

John Dunlop patented a method of sticking rubber to canvas and produced a shoe construction to later be called the ‘Plimsoll’. This was named after the British maritime legend, Samuel Plimsoll, who campaigned for the introduction of a line to be painted on a ship's hull to indicate the legal limit to which a ship was to be loaded. Some sources say that the name of shoe was chosen to represent the fact that plimsolls are waterproof up to the point where the rubber sole meets the canvas top. Dunlop went on to develop the iconic Dunlop Green Flash trainer which was worn and endorsed by Fred Perry when winning Wimbledon in 1934-36.

Image © Notebook |

Tennis is played on a variety of court surfaces, calling for differing soling treads

The beginning of the 20th century also saw a considerable number of other companies producing shoes which utilised rubber. The US Rubber Company launched Keds in 1916, and Converse introduced its All Star shoe in the same year. The first shoe actually marketed as a tennis shoe was made by adidas in 1931.

Today, tennis shoes are a technical item of sports equipment – ergonomically and biomechanically designed for playing the game on specific surfaces. Players can choose tennis shoes for fit, grip, cushioning and stability, in the same way that they choose their racquet for size of sweet spot, power, grip, string type, stringing pattern and tension.

However, players need to be aware that the ‘tennis’ shoe also became an item of ‘athleisurewear’ in the 1980s, and such footwear is worn simply as comfortable and fashionable casual wear rather than for tennis. Some manufacturers copied the styling but not necessarily the performance elements.

A rubber-soled plimsoll

Consequently, while possibly perfectly acceptable for everyday use, these shoes may not be suitable for actually playing tennis. So what makes a serious tennis shoe?

Performance requirements

A serious tennis shoe should offer both protection and performance to the player. For instance, it should minimise the risk of foot soreness and blisters, heel pain and squashed or cramped toes. Discomfort from such foot problems will inevitably impair player performance. Even top professionals who appear to be able to play through the pain barrier would be able to focus more fully on the game if they were not being distracted by discomfort.

An example of a pimpled tread for grass courts

The factors that may positively facilitate and enhance player performance include low weight, cushioning, flexibility, stability and traction (slip resistance). These are both comfort and biomechanical factors that can help to enhance player performance if matched to the individual and playing surface. There have been many scientific studies on the biomechanics of the shoe-ground interaction in tennis which have fed into the design of tennis shoes. Player trials and analysis of feedback from those trials during the product development phase also plays a key part in proving innovation in materials and construction technology.

The weight factor has been clearly demonstrated in the laboratory – lighter footwear is less fatiguing in which to run. In recent years, there have been significant strides made in reducing the weight of sports footwear, and low weight is a key selling point today.

Flexibility and stability in tennis shoes make for efficient and smooth weight transfer. This is key to the player making rapid and confident changes of direction on the court – a key part of the tennis game.

Image © Squeaky Knees

Roger Federer wearing pimpled grass court shoes at Wimbledon

A shoe that contributes to player ‘proprioception’ (awareness of position and movement of body parts, including foot and ankle) and ‘exteroception’ (the feel for the tennis court surface) is desirable. Players need to be able to feel how hard they can push themselves without risk of injury – Novak Djokovic has such good feel for a court surface that he can force a slide to occur, even on a hard court surface.

Fit – the starting point for all footwear

The essentials of good shoemaking last and upper design for tennis shoes are that they should:

Tennis is a multi-directional sport – unlike running – with rapid skipping and vigorous lunging movements in all directions. This means that there are high forces tending to cause the foot to slide backwards and forwards, and side to side inside the shoe if the fit is not secure. Even with a secure fit, the foot will be buffeted against the upper, hence the need for toe space.

Image © Eric Harris

Clay court tennis shoes – such as these worn by Maria Sharapova – must allow for for a unique playing style

Socks (hose) play a particularly key role in tennis shoe comfort. They absorb sweat, provide cushioning and reduce rubbing, thus lowering the likelihood of blistering occurring. Individual players can effectively customise the fit of their shoes by selecting hose of the right thickness for them. Asymmetric socks (designed specifically for left and right feet) eliminate surplus material from in front of the lesser toes without the wearer having to pull the hose on too tightly.

A long fastening system, usually laces, from the instep down to the joint again allows wearers to customise the fit to their foot shape. It also permits adjustment during the game – feet swell as they get hot and spread under the repeated heavy pounding.

Sole grip dependent on surface

Image © Aringstone

Tennis shoes for indoor courts often feature smooth soles

Tennis is played on a wide range of surfaces, both hard and resilient, and with varying levels of friction. The nature of the surface influences the players’ technique and movement. For example, the clay court is unique in requiring a completely different style of play to that on hard courts, as the player frequently makes a controlled slide to execute a shot.

Consequently, there are different types of tread patterns marketed for different surfaces – smooth soles for play on indoor carpet, pimpled tread for grass and artificial grass courts, and shallow intricate tread patterns for hard and clay courts. The classic pattern is the shallow zigzag or herringbone pattern, but many other designs are also used. Soles may also incorporate small islands of circular design in the tread to create pivot points where torsional or rotational friction is reduced in order to make twisting easier, thus reducing torsional strains on the lower leg.

Tennis is not usually played in the rain, but court surfaces may be wet after rain or with evening and winter condensation. Many amateur club players may have to contend with ageing and perhaps deteriorating courts, with encroaching moss and algae. This can cause dangerous sudden loss of grip during play, but is really a problem of court maintenance rather than footwear selection, as no shoe sole will prevent slip under such conditions.

The classic herringbone or zigzag sole pattern, used on many hard and clay courts

Abrasion resistance – inside and out

The very aggressive and highly energetic nature of tennis requires the use of abrasion-resistant shoe materials for internal linings, upper and sole. The service action is particularly severe on the toe area. Depending on an individual’s technique, the inside (medial) toe region of the sole (and perhaps even the upper) is likely to suffer relatively rapid abrasion unless reinforced with more durable or thicker material.

Fashion and marketing influences

In today’s highly commercial and fashion-conscious world, even functional performance footwear has to be appealingly packaged. Tennis shoes come in a rainbow of colours – and even black – so basic properties such as colour fastness become very important. The design and styling lines created by various brands can give tennis shoes a very different look, yet be equally functional. Designs and colour combinations can be customised when ordering on-line; one professional player even had the word ‘believe’ emblazoned on her shoes, reportedly to help her focus during play.

How can we help?

Please email for assistance with the evaluation and testing of tennis shoes and other sporting footwear.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 6 of the April 2013 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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