I interviewed Roger Federer about shoes (for another site) on the eve of the ATP World Tour Finals in London and the NikeLab launch of the Nike Zoom Vapor AJ3 mashup of two Tinker Hatfield designs. Remember when about five people seemed to know who Tinker was? Now he’s being name checked in campaigns by folks like Federer. I never expected to ever speak to this man, let alone talking to him about Jordan IIIs. This thing of ours has definitely leached into the mainstream and if it means meeting people as pleasant and charming as this guy (I can report that talk of Roger Federer being a class act doesn’t seem to be some kind of sponsor’s construct and I never interrupted him freaking out over room temperature or a brand of spring water — he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever interviewed), rather than some very surly people I’ve had to sit with who have a handful of minor hit records and not a single Grand Slam title to their name. Game, set and match to Federer over those fanboy dream shatterers.
Roger, how much wear testing and work went into creating this Jordan hybrid? I’ve seen projects that mix silhouettes before, but they’re generally for people who want to pose in them, rather than play in them. And when the white version of the Tour Vapor 9 Jordan III debuted, you were playing in front of thousands.
ROGER: Absolutely. With the outfits that we wear, it can be design rather than performance but with a shoe I think you can’t compromise. It has to work. The Vapor that I’ve been playing in was the base and then Jordan came in with its design — I still had to wear test a little bit. I had a covered shoe so it wouldn’t show anything, like the cars, you know? I’d go on a road trip and have the other players looking at me like, “What are you doing?” And I had to say, “It’s the shoe I’m going to be wearing in a few days!” I wore this new one for practise and I was always hoping that no pictures would get out, but it was quiet. So I know that this one works. The only difference I did have is that usually during the year I have a lot of mesh on the shoe, but during the clay court season I have leather on top too so the clay doesn’t go through to the socks. I really like playing in leather shoes and I like the look and feel of it, so from that standpoint I didn’t have to wear test a whole lot. It’s just important that the Vapor in general is a great shoe, which it has become though Tinker, who also designed the Jordan shoe. He knows both shoes well.
Tinker must know all about your feet from designing the Vapor 9.
He does know my feet and I have a custom-made mould. If you look at my feet, mine are a bit wider. So it’s very much there — he knows both of us, so it’s very cool that the three of us can do a collaboration.
The sheer wear and tear that tennis puts a shoe though is intense — especially when a game goes on for hours and hours. Is that tough to preempt?
Actually the way I move, I don’t rip through shoes so much — thankfully. But I know some guys who go through one pair of shoes a match almost, which I find very hard to comprehend. Players like Novak who slide tear through shoes — if you slide on the hard courts that really tears the shoe apart, but the way I move is quite smooth actually, so I usually go through two pairs per tournament, plus all the practises and all that. And still they look decent on the foot at the front and on the side they get a bit used. What’s important for me is that I feel that they’re agile and they’re quick and responsive, you know? I need to feel like I’m low to the ground and that I really do not twist my ankle — that is the biggest fear for a tennis player. I’ve only had that once and it was on a crazy court back in 2005. So if you think about it and how many hours I’ve spent on a court, I’ve actually been very lucky.
Does the parallel between you and Michael Jordan put a lot of extra pressure on you? You seemed excited to meet him in the Nike video from a few months back.
I was definitely happy to meet him. It was my hero next to me — it was a bit odd but I was trying to be cool with it! I was very excited when I was told I should wear it at the Open and in the first match and not only was I going to wear it, he was going to come and watch. So I was like, “Ohhh! Okay, don’t get injured!” I was actually cool about it until, like, the day of the match. I was playing night sessions so had a long time to think about it and the more the match approached I was telling myself, “I can’t lose this match!” So I went into it, like, “Whatever you do, don’t lose!” [Laughter.] I actually got very nervous that day and it was not a great feeling to have, but I was happy that Michael was at the match, the crowd was good and happy to see Michael and I’m glad that I did win in the shoe for the first time, but like you said, I did feel that pressure — I did feel something in the stadium and every time I was serving I saw this shoe like, “Whoa!” I ended up playing a second and third time in the shoe during the Open which was easier.
I get the impression that you’re very happy with the Zoom Vapor 9 design, it’s two years old now — do you find that being happy with a shoe is like being happy with a racket and does that make you resistant to big changes?
I’m more flexible than Pete Sampras was. I mean Pete Sampras didn’t want to change much equipment. You have to be careful though— we’re working on things right now. With the Jordan version, we had every Jordan ever made out and Tinker and Jordan Brand told me to choose the one I prefer the most — the one that makes you feel the best and play the best. I chose the III and they were very happy that I chose it. I didn’t know which one I liked better — black or white. White is more tennis.
Black is a fan favourite though.
I think so too. I didn’t expect the black one to come out later on. Then the Jordan group said, “How about black?” And that one’s cool too, but I was like, “Where and how?” So that’s where the idea came to wear it in the World Tour finals.
Were several different Jordan models shown to you on the Vapor platform?
No, they did it and showed it to me and said, “Do you like it?” And I did like it. I really let them do it, because the way they were going to do it would be something that I liked. Do you like a white or a grey tongue?
Grey is the best. The toe down view on the Jordan III is very visually appealing. You mentioned feeling good when you wear certain clothing or shoes — what you’ve worn has been a discussion point before. Jordan was a master of psychological warfare on the court — is your appearance part of your game plan?
It’s more for me — it’s for me rather than the opponent. The better you feel, the better you play. When I walked out in the suit at Wimbledon or in the Jordan shoe, those were iconic moments by tennis standards and they are big, you know? We’re very fortunate in tennis because I get to change my outfit around ten times a year and so I get a lot of changes because I work with Nike so closely with the design team, I always know what’s coming and I must say, it’s very cool being part of that process to look and feel good.
Growing up, there seemed to be a lot of tennis shoes worn as a fashion statement, like McEnroe’s Nike shoes. After Agassi and the Tech Challenges, your generation came through with a fast and powerful game — shoes had to be tougher and heavier so they couldn’t be worn so easily as a fashion statement…
Yeah, they had to become tougher. Agassi’s generation really started that with shoes becoming more bulky. I remember that.
When you were working on the Zoom Vapor 9, did you have a vision that maybe people could wear that one beyond the court too?
That was the idea with the Vapor, because the way that we can design the Vapor together with Tinker and the looks definitely gives it street-wear potential. And with the Jordan thing we’re going into it with the references to hi-tops and basketball shoes that are very, very fashionable right now. I think the black one is something I’ll wear on the street. White is a colour that really seems to be becoming stronger on shoes, but black is more toned down. On the court I might be wearing white, but away from the court I like something darker — it’s not so visible. It definitely has that potential.