As architect-turned-shoe-designer Tinker Hatfield started crafting some of the most famous Air Jordan silhouettes of all time in the late 1980s, he was also busy changing tennis sneaker design forever.
“Phil Knight walked into my office one day many, many years ago and said, ‘Do you know who Andre Agassi is?’ and I said I don’t,” Hatfield says. “He said, ‘Well, you’re going to. We are about to sign this young player and it is going to be your project.’ And then he just left.”
The very next day Hatfield was on a plane to Las Vegas to meet Agassi, and the birth of the famed Air Tech Challenge line soon followed. And it hasn’t gone away. The Air Tech Challenge 2 from 1990, best known for its Hot Lava colorway, has lived on. It has become a popular retro offering, seen a LeBron 16 colorway and the sole was featured on the Nike Air Yeezy 2. But Hatfield was about more than colorways, bringing technology to tennis.
“When I first started that particular project I got from Mr. Knight, I of course looked at all our previous tennis products and it felt like it wasn’t nearly up to par with what we were doing with basketball at the time or cross training and, of course, running,” he says. “Tennis players deserved the same kind of treatment and the best innovation possible.”
Hatfield used discoveries from the track and field world to improve on-court speed, stability, and movement concepts from the basketball line made their way into tennis and he leaned heavily on the feedback from the pros, while also working with the Stanford University tennis team for insight.
“I think that oftentimes we can shift something we’ve learned from one sport to another,” he says. “Especially on hard surfaces, [basketball and tennis] do need to perform similarly.”
One of the most popular on-court models for tennis players in the late 1980s was a Hatfield design that wasn’t created for tennis or basketball, but meant to serve as the world’s first cross trainer. The 1987-released Air Trainer 1 was designed so athletes could do multiple workouts with one shoe, without needing multiple different shoes. A pair was sent to John McEnroe in 1986 before the shoe was planned for release and he donned them during tournaments. When Agassi signed with the brand, he sported the Air Trainer 1 in 1988.
While Hatfield hadn’t yet designed a purpose-built tennis sneaker, he still had one of the most popular designs in the sport. Moving to the Air Tech Challenge and working with Agassi—a project he did alongside meetings with Michael Jordan while the then-growing Air Jordan line was in full swing—allowed Hatfield to upgrade tennis footwear with the likes of full-length Nike Air, made visible to upgrade the on-court aesthetic, Durathane outsoles, and a Durabuck leather-like upper.
The technology-driven concept grew in the 1990s, but also created powerful shoes that led to a Hatfield creation he calls the most underrated tennis sneaker: the Nike Zoom Vapor 9.
Debuted in 2012 through his work with another tennis legend in Roger Federer, Hatfield was by then designing on his iPad and worked with the Swiss superstar to cut excess from the design and create something more akin to a running shoe, but still with the strength and lockdown needed for tennis.
The “fingers” crafted on the upper worked with the laces and interior system to mold the upper to each foot, allowing for the stability and strength while mesh further removed excess weight.
“That was the shoe we cracked the code with,” Hatfield says. “Roger is no longer a Nike athlete, but I worked with him a lot and he always said he wanted a tennis shoe more like a running shoe: lighter weight, more breathable, and a little bit more flexible.”
The 2012 release lived on in the Vapor 9.5—the first of the models to receive an Air Jordan 3 collab—and eventually the Nike Air Zoom Vapor X from December 2017, a model still used on court at the professional level.
“I don’t know if that shoe has gotten the same publicity and attention that some of the older designs have gotten,” Hatfield says of the 2012 release.
Through it all, Hatfield has worked with some of the biggest names in tennis, from McEnroe to Agassi and Pete Sampras to Federer. The first tennis player he spent time with was McEnroe, who took his non-tennis designs and made them popular on the court.
“He was incendiary, so you never knew if he was interested in chatting or not,” Hatfield says. “I found him to be really charming and engaging and enjoyed the few conversations I had with him.”
His first impressions of Agassi helped launch the irreverent nature of Nike’s tennis lines.
“I went and met Andre at his home in Vegas and he was still just a young guy,” Hatfield says. “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.”
Mix in the color in Agassi’s hair during that first meeting in Vegas and how tennis equipment brands were starting to produce neon-colored tape for the rackets, and Hatfield decided that Nike should embrace all things neon.
“People were like you gotta be nuts and I said, exactly, crazy like a fox. Our approach to tennis was to be a little anti-tennis,” he says. “It put us into a whole new zone and our products started to fly off the shelves.”
“I look back at that time and the collection as a start of a beautiful thing,” Agassi told me last year. “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.”
Every athlete was a bit different to work with. Hatfield remembers hitting balls with Agassi and Sampras and trying to understand their mentality. And they couldn’t be more disparate in their styles.
“Pete Sampras came along and he was the antithesis to Andre,” Hatfield says. “He was more conservative, not just in his demeanor, but in his game. He was much more consistent and a little more conservative. There are both really interesting things to work with.”
From McEnroe giving life to the Air Trainer 1 that eventually became a key part of Bo Jackson’s marketing to the Agassi-led Air Tech Challenge line, the Sampras-specific Air Oscillate Hatfield debuted in 1997 right into the underrated Zoom Vapor 9 of 2012, Hatfield’s mark on tennis sneakers is as profound as any.