Signature tennis shoes start with Hans Nüßlein. Yup, Hans Nüßlein. Not Stan Smith, Steffi Graf or dozens of other tennis athletes, although without some of the most famous tennis players signing on for signatures we wouldn’t know about Hans, who showed off the first-ever tennis signature shoe with Adidas in 1949.
Then came the next stage of signature sneakers, the timeframe that turned signatures into popular culture—arguably the most famous sneaker tongue in all of history is the Adidas “Endorsed By: Stan Smith.”
Explore the complete history of signature shoes in tennis. I’m talking Nüßlein to Coco Gauff’s 2022-released Coco CG1 from New Balance. And there’s plenty in between, totaling 38 signature shoes in the sport, 29 for male athletes and nine for female athletes. Six of those men had signature shoes for two different brands (and were counted twice) and eight of those females had signature shoes before any female basketball player ever had one.
A Signature Definition
Defining a signature shoe in tennis is thorny, far trickier than the straightforward definitions in basketball. I’ve spoken to brand leaders, agents and athletes to form my definition of a signature shoe in tennis: A shoe that contains a reference to the player in the name, the visual identity, includes a contractual benefit and was designed with player input. A few exceptions allow only some of those be true.
The first two elements of the definition come simple to discern. The third and fourth are not always so upfront. Athletes have tiers when it comes to sneaker contracts. A signature shoe, whether a one-off and or a series of models, pair with a unique contract that pays a higher fee or royalty for sales, different than a basic endorsement deal or even when a player serves as the face of the marketing for a product.
Mike Nakajima, who spent three decades at Nike, most as the director for tennis sports marketing, says he believes a signature shoe adds the personality of an athlete to a shoe built based on their design input, all while incorporating an athlete logo.
Some signature lines included spin-offs—for example Steffi Graf had four different models from Adidas, all with unique names—and I’m only counting these as one, all part of a signature line, akin to how modern-day signature numbering comes into play, something that wasn’t part of nomenclature in tennis signature releases.
The Early Years
While The Adidas Robert Haillet shoe from 1964 gets the bulk of the early attention, both for being the predecessor to the Adidas Stan Smith and for being one of the first signature shoes in the sport, the 1949-released Model Nüßlein was the first-ever signature tennis shoe. It’s worth nothing the 1935-released Jack Purcell from B.F. Goodrich was a signature badminton shoe popular on the tennis courts. But Model Nüßlein was the first for a tennis athlete.
“The model is one of the first Adidas specialist tennis shoes for professional athletes,” Adidas archivists tell me. Developed in cooperation with one of the top players of the 1930s, three-time world champion Nüßlein, the upper included a milled calf leather and a padded tongue with natural felt. The insole and midsole were made from leather and the heel wedge and outsole were cellular rubber with a thin compact rubber surface.
Model Nüßlein stood as the only signature shoe for the sport until the introduction of the Adidas Robert Haillet in 1964.
Puma represented the second brand to enter the signature fray, introducing the Puma Wilhelm Bungert in 1966.
The Heyday of Tennis Signature Shoes
Signature tennis shoes came fast and furious from 1969 through 1992, with the 23-year span producing 31 of the sport’s 38 signature offerings.
As expected, Adidas and Puma dominated the landscape. The Adidas Rod Laver kicked off the push in 1969, followed by Bungert switching from Puma to get his second signature shoe, the Adidas Wilhelm Bungert. The Adidas Stan Smith debuted in 1973, basically the same as the Haillet until Smith encouraged the addition of a tab on the heel to help with Achille’s support, seen with the green padding on the back of the shoe. Smith tells me he also got a change in the tongue, so it didn’t shift.
“It was the only shoe out there at the time (with leather) and it already had a bit of a following and was fairly unique in tennis,” Smith once told me. “It took a little bit of time (to get used to it), but it was pretty comfortable.”
Adidas also had the Adidas Newcombe for John Newcombe in 1971. Newcombe became the second athlete to switch brands and get a second signature with the Lotto Newcombe Signature in 1975 (the name later changed to Newcombe Autograph).
The first female athlete with her own signature was Billie Jean King, debuting the Adidas B.J. King in 1974.
Along with Lotto’s entry into signature models, a few other brands joined the mix in the 1970s. Additional releases of that era included the Adidas Nastase for Ilie Nastase; the Adidas Tom Okker Professional; the Adidas Ramirez Centre Court for Raul Carlos Ramirez; Arthur Ashe’s Adidas Ashe; the Puma Vilas Tournament for Guillermo Villas (it was later termed both the G. Villas and GV Special); Ashe switching brands and earning a second signature with the Le Coq Sportif Arthur Ashe; the Adidas Karl Meiler Tennis Cup; and the second signature for a female athlete, the Adidas Bettina Bunge.
The 1980s continued the onslaught and welcomed a bevy of new female athletes, starting with Puma being the second brand to give a signature to a female athlete in 1980 with the Puma Sylvia Hanika, later named the Hanika Star, and the 1981 Puma Mandlikova for Hana Mandlikova.
Signatures in the 1980s featured a growing line of Puma signatures for Martina Navratilova, including the Puma Martina International and Martina Pro; the Puma B. Becker, later the Becker Ace, for Boris Becker; the Adidas Stefan Edberg, which produced four models, including the Torsion Edberg Comp; the Adidas Lendl for Ivan Lendl; and the Puma Henri Leconte.
The ’80s included Diadora joining the signature mix with the Diadora Borg Elite for Bjorn Borg and Converse offering its only two signature models, both in 1983, the Converse Jimmy Connors and Converse Chris Evert.
Le Coq added a second signature to the brand’s history with the Le Coq Noah Star for Yannick Noah.
Mizuno’s only signature model in its history came in the form of the Mizuno Lendl after he left Adidas following no less than 10 different Adidas Lendl signature models.
And there were two more signature shoe from the 1980s, the 1984-released Nike Mac Attack for John McEnroe and the Nike Air Tech Challenge line for Andre Agassi, which started in 1989.
But even the Mac Attack started on shaky ground as a signature. “That was supposed to be for racquetball at the time,” McEnroe previously told me. “We went through 15 to 20 types of sneakers, and none felt right. That felt right.”
“The McEnroe line, with the New York City checkerboard taxi, it was great,” Nakajima says. “It was the first one we had ever done.” With the “entrancing” personality McEnroe had, it allowed the team to build an entire collection around him. “We loved that about John,” he says, “but you couldn’t do that with everybody.”
The bounty of signature shoes extended into the early 1990s with Diadora releasing the Diadora Capriati Elite for Jennifer Capriati in 1990 and the Diadora Boris Becker in 1992, his second signature after leaving Puma.
The Lonely Years
From 1993 until 2020 we saw just three signature models. In a timespan longer than the previous era that returned 31 signature models, that’s a dearth. And Adidas, the undisputed leader in signature creations at 16, hasn’t produced a new tennis signature since the late ’80s.
Tennis started in Europe with the German footwear brands the initial leaders in the sport. The 1980s and 1990s saw a swing to the United States, allowing new footwear brands to grow signature lines. But as tennis shifted back to Europe in the ’90s, Nakajima says, that took with it interest from U.S. fans.
In 2002 Asics launched the Asics Gel-Enqvist for Thomas Enqvist, the only signature ever from the brand. In 2018 New Balance gave Milos Raonic a signature with the New Balance Fresh Foam Lav (lav means lion in Serbian and is a direct tie to Raonic), New Balance’s first-ever signature in tennis. Both are as under-the-radar as signature shoes can get.
The third? The Nike Vapor for Roger Federer, certainly a shoe worthy of a discussion of was it truly a signature shoe and one of two exceptions—Agassi’s Nike signature the other, which is also a point of discussion—on the list of 38.
Were They a Signature?
The first rule in our definition, a reference to the player in the shoe’s name, comes tricky as Nike started producing shoes without player ties in the name but strong ties in marketing. The Nike Air Tech Challenge line is our first example, with the Vapor line the second.
Both shoes made the signature list because of the distinct tie between designer and athlete and athlete and brand.
“I went and met Andre at his home in Vegas and he was still just a young guy,” famed Nike designer Tinker Hatfield previously told me about the start of the Air Tech Challenge line. “We started the design process, which was really fun because he was different than the standard player, he played differently, he hit the ball so hard from the baseline, the Nick Bollettieri style of hit it as hard as you can. I always thought it was an interesting approach, very different from John McEnroe and other athletes Nike had signed before, so that was fun.”
“I look back at that time and the collection as a start of a beautiful thing,” Agassi once told me. “It was, again, real and authentic, but it was also an exploration, one that felt like a continuation and process that was only going to evolve and morph. People felt the freedom to let it be what it needed to be. It just started with me being opinionated and Nike having a sense of being willing to push boundaries.”
The Agassi-led shoes included a logo Agassi wore on his Challenge Court apparel line and Agassi was featured in advertisements for years. “People were like you gotta be nuts and I said, exactly, crazy like a fox,” Hatfield tells me about the new looks. “Our approach to tennis was to be a little anti-tennis. It put us into a whole new zone and our products started to fly off the shelves.”
While plenty of other Nike athletes led marketing campaigns for shoes they wore—whether Jim Courier and the Nike Air Resistance (more about the apparel in his marketing) or Pete Sampras and the Nike Air Oscillate—the fact that Hatfield worked specifically with both Agassi and Federer on the creation of the shoe lines and the athletes were so prominently positioned by Nike raises these two non-named lines into signature status.
Federer wore the Vapor line since its birth in 2004 and the release of the Vapor 9 Tour in 2012, thanks to a Hatfield design, was the culmination of a signature-style effort. The Vapor line was offered as both an inline model and a RF logo-adorned model.
“It became a great-looking shoe,” Federer once told me, “and I felt it was a new beginning for tennis shoes.”
Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick, provides an answer on the signature question: “He had a signature shoe,” Godsick tells me.
Nike typically produced one RF shoe per year, often featuring collaborations. Even without a true RF-named franchise, the shoe rose to signature status because of Federer’s involvement in the design of the Vapor 9 Tour, the use of the RF logo and versions that featured “RF” in the shoe’s name.
Nakajima agrees the Vapor was a signature, saying Nike built an entire brand around Federer while calling him one of the greatest athletes in both tennis and our lifetime. Because other athletes didn’t want to wear a shoe with the RF logo on it, they took off the logo to accommodate more players wearing the model. “The shoe was iconic,” he says. “It was a hit with the players.”
Nakajima believes that the Maria Sharapova-logoed Vapor version also qualified as a signature shoe from a marketing perspective because it was sold at retail, but I’ve classified it as a player exclusive—an inline shoe personalized aesthetically for a specific athlete—because I believe you can’t have the same model—a Nike Vapor, in this case—as a signature shoe for two separate athletes.
In 2015 Nike worked with Serena Williams on her NikeCourt Flare, but even at the time my conversations with the designer and Williams never included either of them calling this a signature shoe. And the Flare Williams wore in matches—she often switched shoes and had a different specially designed shoe she wore during practice—was far different than the Flare that was briefly available at retail. Nike never appeared to give the Flare signature status.
In more recent days, Nike has attached the names of players to previously existing models, whether the Cage line having a “Rafa” wordmark and logo or the GP Turbo aesthetics tied to Naomi Osaka. Neither of those are true signature shoes because they were pre-existing models before the athletes became attached, removing the element of their cooperation in design.
Stuart Duguid, Evolve co-founder and Osaka’s agent, tells me the priority in her Nike deal wasn’t a traditional signature shoe even though she does have her name attached to a model. Instead, the focus was on becoming the only Nike tennis player with an off-court line. “Tennis shoes aren’t worn in wider fashion, as opposed to basketball shoes,” Duguid says, “so they’re simply performance, which I never saw as a huge revenue driver.” He calls the off-court line “very successful.”
Nike did not return multiple requests to comment on which shoes in brand history rose to signature status internally.
Asics has the Court FF line, including a Novak Djokovic-inspired player edition version, but the brand is quick to point out it isn’t a signature.
Even Wilson has an entry into the “were they” list with the Jack Kramer Signature, a design produced well after Kramer’s playing days, so therefore not a true signature. Like Wilson, Puma produced two shoes endorsed by coaches. The 1981 Puma Tiriac Coach was for Ion Tiriac and the 1987 Puma G Bosch, endorsed by Gunther Bosch, former Boris Becker trainer, was well past the playing days of Bosch. None of those are athlete signature shoes.
The Return of the Signature
Following the desert of signatures, Federer again returned us to the oasis, launching The Roger franchise, including the on-court The Roger Pro in 2021 with On. Federer wore the signature on the court, and we’ve seen a handful of other athletes in The Roger Pro, including specially designed pairs for Ben Shelton and soon for Iga Swiatek.
Federer and On aren’t the only ones entering the signature game, with New Balance going all-in on Coco Gauff, launching the New Balance Coco CG1 in 2022. The Coco CG1 is the most like a true basketball-style signature, as New Balance released three colorways in the first couple of months it was available in 2022 and another four colorways in the first few months of 2023, all before the French Open design hit the public.
“It’s an absolute dream come true to be able to put my stamp on this sport with New Balance and hopefully inspire generations to come,” Gauff tells me.
Evan Zeder, New Balance head of tennis sports marketing, tells me they don’t take doing a signature shoe lightly, but as a brand wanted to take a unique approach to the space. “We looked at this opportunity to enter into a category that doesn’t have signature and have a female lead that,” he says. “It puts us at a different place and puts her at a different place. We are building off where she is going and not what she has done, using that as a starting place.”
Godsick says that signature shoes in tennis can work with the right athlete. Federer’s The Roger franchise from On is an example. “He is literally in the On studios all the time,” Godsick says about Federer’s role as more than an equity investor in the Swiss-based company. “He can drive down for a meeting in 30 minutes, feel materials, collaborate on design and playtest. The team at On are so creative, forward thinking and constantly innovating. I think where it is fun for Roger is he knows what’s important in the shoe, he’s been through it as he has practical experience from years on tour. It is really exciting to throw something out there that incorporates his years of knowledge and experience to create the next top shoe for the next generation of athletes.”
Gauff, who is represented by Godsick’s Team8 agency, turned 19 in March and has already started to transcend the sport. “The great thing about being with such a powerful and hot brand like New Balance is she is one of a few, and as it relates to tennis one of very few. That makes it easier,” Godsick says. “She speaks to the next generation of that younger consumer who wants to have something amazing on the court and off the court, has some color, has a story behind it. It is all about storytelling and both Coco and Roger have stories to tell.”
Josh Wilder, New Balance tennis product manager, tells me a modern-day signature has really evolved with sneaker culture in that “a lot more personality has been added to the shoes.”
No longer is it just a name and signature adorning the shoe, but storytelling elements “that tells their journey as they progress through life and their journey as a player,” Wilder says. “There is more of an emphasis on players because consumers want to understand a player’s journey. The CG1 captures a moment in time for Coco as a player and person. Her CG2 will also capture her for a moment in time of how she has evolved and grown as a person.”
The Signature Discussion
The lack of recent tennis signature shoes likely comes tied to finances.
Tennis represents less than 1% of the overall sport shoe market in the United States, according to retail expert Matt Powell of Spurwink River consultancy. And with the extra investment required in a signature model—both contractually and in development—the higher retail price and investment in the effort may not be worth the payoff. “I do not expect signature tennis shoes to be commercially important,” Powell says.
Nike’s global business in tennis is $300 million, a small piece of a $40 billion company. “Tennis is not a big part,” Nakajima concedes, “however some of the very top athletes Nike has are tennis players.”
There’s also risk associated with linking to a single athlete in a non-team sport. That investment could render itself wasted if an athlete is no longer playing the sport, lacks success or makes personal decisions detrimental to marketing.
“American athletes have to get deep into the second week to get any promotion on network TV and sports channels,” Nakajima says. “At the end of the day, you have to win. That is what it comes down to. If (a player) gets hurt, you are rolling the dice on that shoe.”
Then there’s just the simple fact that brands want their tennis offerings accessible, both from a style and marketing perspective (consumers who aren’t fans of a certain player aren’t likely to purchase that player’s signature model). For Asics, they made the decision to offer the Court FF 3 as a non-signature, instead offering a Djokovic-styled Court FF 3 Novak along with the main design.
“It is incredibly important that we are gathering insights from our athletes but at the same time benefiting as many people as possible,” Gary Raucher, executive vice president of Asics tells me in relation to signature tennis shoes. “We want to make sure it is available for a wide range of people. We use feedback we get with athletes to benefit the range as a whole.”
Nakajima says a signature line can still be a success, but it must be with the right athlete. “I am hopeful,” he says.
Wilder has optimism there will be more signature shoes than just for Federer and Gauff, especially as tennis enters a fresh era with a younger generation leading the way. “In the last couple of decades, a handful of players dominated the industry and brands may have been worried about sticking their neck out for a player not named Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams,” he says. “In the last couple of decades it was less common, but it might become a bit more common and I do have some hope for it.”
A special thank you to Adidas, Puma, New Balance, Diadora, Asics, Mizuno and Wilson for opening their archives for research on this article.