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Let's Talk Tennis

Questions abound when it comes to the topic of tennis shoes. Everyone's favourite is of course, "Which shoe is best for clay courts?". In this post, we will take a cue from the Pros to explore this often blurry area of product knowledge. 

It's always best to start at the beginning though, so let's look at some basic information on how tennis shoes are designed.

The Basics

Like a cross-trainer, but amplified, tennis shoes are designed to perform optimally for quick starts, stops and sprints as well as heavy lateral movements. Generally, this requires a shoe that's built low to the ground to enhance a sturdy, stable base of support, but is still light enough and fast enough to keep up with the pace of the game.

To achieve this, New Balance starts by building their court shoes on either the X-001 (cross-training) or PL last. These two shapes have a mid-level drop that maintains a sturdy platform under the foot without sacrificing comfort or the space to build in support features. They also hug the midfoot and heel as a first measure to eliminate excessive foot movement.  To enhance lateral stability, the most common stabilizing features are ProBank, which extends the base of support under the midfoot and wraps a stabilizing "wall" up and over the lateral side, and NDure, a rubberized upper overlay that locks the foot in place to reduce shifting over the midsole while also improving the upper's durability. Alternatively, a thick leather upper will achieve similar levels of control around the foot. Typically, a TPU plate is positioned in the midfoot to reduce torsion in the arch area and protect the foot from strain and fatigue that would otherwise result from quick and powerful movement changes. In the rearfoot, an external heel cap can reduce shifting in the heel and act as a preventative measure against ankle rolling. This can be "amped-up" with the addition of a RollBar, which extends control of the heel and ankle by reinforcing the shoe's midsole with TPU and/or graphite. 

Another important factor in supporting fast-paced movement changes is the shoe's ability to grip the surface below it. For the best multi-directional traction, New Balance predominantly uses a herringbone tread pattern. And to ensure this traction lasts, the brand's signature rubber, NDurance, is the go-to material choice. 

Court Surface

So what makes a tennis shoe good on a clay court? To answer that question, here's a look at some of the shoes worn at this year's French Open, which is played on the red clay courts at Roland Garros in Paris.

New Balance MC996

New Balance MC996

NikeCourt Lunar Ballistec

NikeCourt Lunar Ballistec

NikeCourt Flare

NikeCourt Flare

Adidas Barricade

Adidas Barricade

One of the glaring qualities to note is the flat, full-contact outsole with a shallow herringbone tread. Djokovic's shoes were even customized for these qualities. Here's what the shoe's outsole typically looks like:

Adidas Barricade Outsole

Adidas Barricade Outsole

Here's what these qualities offer:

Shallow Herringbone Tread - as noted before, this tread pattern offers the best multi-directional traction, but additionally, debris build up is easily removed when the foot is flexed to open the shallow grooves or with a quick hard tap. This is paramount as clay particles quickly embed in the outsole.

Full Contact Sole with Consistent Tread Pattern - This feature ensures that there are few "hard edges" to cut deep into the clay, minimizing damage to the court surface. 

To touch on other surfaces, grass courts like those at Wimbledon are also delicate and slippery, requiring a full contact outsole that will not damage the surface of the court and a herringbone tread for optimal traction.  Alternatively, outdoor, hard-court surfaces are durable but variable in their surface texture, so a more varied outsole design with different treads, textures, and pivot points can be a practical choice for the sake of versatility.

Speed of Play

Court surface also affects speed of play. Clay is well-known for slowing down ball speed and heightening bounce, allowing players to sit back on the baseline with enough time to set up for hard powerful returns. However, this style of baseline play demands heavy lateral movements and even sliding to reach the far corners of the court, so a shoe with more stability features will help protect the feet from injury and fatigue.

Alternatively, grass courts are better known for increasing ball speed and reducing bounce height, requiring players to move quicker on their feet and favouring players with a hard serve and the ability to play the court more aggressively. The optimal shoe in these conditions has a much more flexible  design allowing players to sprint and jump effectively but also protecting against toe-drag wear and tear. 

The variability of hard-surface courts requires less specificity in design and more all-around versatility. 

Style of Play

While court surface can change the pace and style of the game, most advanced players are known for favouring one style of play over the other, regardless of court surface. That said, baseline players will tend to require a more stable shoe with high traction, while a volley and serve player will prefer a lighter, more dynamic shoe with mixed traction to vary their movements more widely.

Which One to Choose?

Use the comment section to answer these questions:

1. Which model would be best for a recreational player on a clay court?

2. Which model would be best for a recreational player on a grass court?

3. Which model would be best for a recreational player on an outdoor hard-surface court?

4. Which model would be best for an advanced volley and serve player on a clay court?

5. Which model would be best for an advanced baseline player on an outdoor hard-surface court?

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