It’s just a fact: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer have dominated the men’s tennis game for a generation. One of the Big Three has played in all but five Grand Slam finals since 2005. Collectively, they’ve won all but 15 since Wimbledon 2003. And, though Federer has retired, and Nadal has said next season will be his last, the trio still looms large over the tour.
For these three GOATs, the clothes certainly don’t make the man — but is there a slight chance that the shoes do? In honor of Djokovic’s return to the U.S. Open, I laced up each of their signature sneakers and took to the courts (and the cafés) to see which pair fared best. Unsurprisingly, they’re all great. My quibbles are generally small and some are entirely subjective. (The Novaks are ugly; the Feds are narrow.) But, as in tennis itself, the details make all the difference.
But First, Some History for the (Sneaker)Heads
Since the first signature pair of tennis shoes hit the market in 1949 (shout out Adidas, shout out German star Hans Nüsslein), the mixed-doubles magic of star athlete and shoe brand has given us some exceptional on-court bangers — and at least two aces with the wider fashion world. Rod Laver (Adidas, 1969) and Stan Smith (Adidas, 1973) have had the longest runs atop the rankings, with Smiths as the most iconic capital-T tennis shoe of all time.
As Tim Newcomb recounts in his definitive history of the signature tennis shoe, Adidas and Puma led the shoe boom of the 70s and 80s, designing sneakers for greats like Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, and a couple dozen others.
The field of more recent entrants to the signature shoe game is startlingly slim.
Nadal joined Nike in 2000 and has a line of shoes, apparel, and accessories with his trademark bull logo. In 2018, Djokovic hitched his wagon to Asics when he helped launch the brand’s Gel Resolution line; today, his logo is on the FF Novak line. (Purists may argue that neither the current FF 3 Novak nor the Vapor Cage Rafa is a true signature shoe, as each is part of a pre-existing shoe line and wasn’t custom-designed.)
Also in 2018, New Balance designed the LAV 2 for the once-promising Canadian player Milos Raonic, but his star has faded (and the shoe itself, though zippy in design, has largely double-faulted). Most recently, in collaboration with Federer, On Running launched the RogerPro in 2021, while New Balance launched its CG1, designed for American star Coco Gauff, in 2022.
How to Test High-Performance Tennis Shoes
Serve. Volley. Run. Slide. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I’m a 3.5 player — that makes me an entirely respectable recreational player who needs more than any old pair of sneakers — and I typically play two or three times per week. Singles is my preferred game, but I’m in a men’s doubles league this summer, so I’m putting the miles in at the net as well as at the baseline.
To test this trio of sneakers, I played on both hard courts and clay. As I tested, I was looking for lightness, stability, and support on the court. But I also wore the shoes once my matches ended, looking for how well they transition to the coffee shop, bar, and those impromptu friend hangs that spin up in the group thread while you’re serving.
THE ROGER Pro From On Running
Performance: I played the ROGER Pros in singles and doubles, on both hard court and clay, and found them to work well. The upper material, especially at the toe, is the breeziest of the three shoes I tested and offered the most ventilation. My feet stayed cooler than both the Rafas and Novaks, and at 13.4 ounces, they sneakers feel light and swift without sacrificing traction. I noticed it especially on clay, where I felt supported and spry.
If I have a concern, it’s that the toe isn’t as reinforced as on the other shoes, which means that if you drag a toe to slow down a slide, or if your service motion is especially hard on your toe box, these shoes are less likely to hang for the long haul.
If you find that you play clay more than hardcourts, or you need a clay specific shoe, On Running makes the RogerPro Clay as well.
Fit: Though most tennis shoes require breaking in, I must give the ROGER Pros a demerit for being a touch narrow in the toe. It didn’t bother me too much while playing, but post-game, and with thicker cushioning socks, the outer edge of my foot felt pinched. After at least one match, I couldn’t wait to unlace them and take them off. (If you have a narrower foot, I imagine that this won’t be an issue.) Every other dimension worked fine for my size 10 dogs.
I did like the tab on the tongue that snaps over the top of the tied laces — this means, because the knot is protected, the shoes are less likely to come untied.
Style: Roger Federer’s style game, both on and off-court, has been marked by elegance and effortlessness. He’s simply too refined to show up in anything less than a Grand Slam fit. Accordingly, I have to say that the ROGER Pro’s transitioned off-court more easily than either the Rafas or the Novaks. For one, they look the least like a piece of gear, with their aesthetics drawing on classic tennis style and not some overdesigned jetski. In a nod to Switzerland — the country of origin for both Roger and On Running — there’s a small Swiss flag on the shoe as well as the words “Swiss Engineering” on the outsole.
Post-game, I was entirely comfortable wearing the ROGER Pros to grab a beer with my doubles crew. I’ve also found myself sliding on the Rogers sockless for errands around town and general puttering. (No chance I’ll do that in the Novaks.)
NikeCourt Vapor Cage 4 Rafa
Performance: My favorite performance detail of the Rafas is the rubber reinforced inner toe on both shoes. This spot is where I’m most likely to wear through lesser shoes, so Nike’s choice to wrap the outsole up around the toe is key. (It’s a wonder that all tennis shoes don’t go big on reinforcing the toe box. Foot fault!)
I felt speedy and secure in the Rafas and they stood out among the three shoes I tested for a very soft landing on my jump serve. Though I played matches in my Rafas, I also made sure to do a bunch of tennis drills. Often repetition of a certain action, like a serve, or a million volleys, can be as instructive as to what works and what doesn’t. They performed great.
Perhaps the biggest shock is that Nike doesn’t make a clay court edition of the Vapor Cage 4 Rafa. Nadal is synonymous with clay court domination. This feels like a shocking miss, especially since you can get a clay court edition of the Novaks and Federers.
Fit: Strong fit. Strong sneaker. I liked the arch support and the general feel. If I have any fit complaints, it’s that the Rafas are a little tough to put on. I suppose I could unlace from the top grommet and slide in, but what a pain. Once you’re in, though, you’re secure, and with the snug fit I didn’t feel like I had to lace the shoes too tightly, which can cut off circulation and dig into the top of the foot.
Style: To me, the Rafas masterfully split the difference between classic tennis style and high-performance aesthetics. They read very much as shoes for serious players without veering too far into a heavy sports vibe. The three colorways currently available on Nike’s site are all handsome, though I’m partial to the white with green trim. The all-blacks cut a different figure, but an imposing one. A friend commented that they look “sporty prep,” which is what great tennis gear ought to look like!
Asics Court FF 3 Novak
Performance: You don’t win 23 Grand Slams and counting playing in a crappy pair of sneakers. Though I don’t love Djokovic as a player/public health authority, I did love playing in his shoes. The Asics did everything I asked of them. I felt fast and supported. They fit great, and I had the mobility I needed. They didn’t require any kind of break-in period, and they felt durable yet flexible out of the box. Like a lot of recreational players, I often find myself flat-footed on the court, so I put these shoes to the test by playing on my toes. They were more than up to the task.
I didn’t test them, but it’s worth noting that Asics also makes a clay court edition of the Novaks, the Clay FF 3 Novaks.
Fit: I’m giving the fit edge to the Novaks over the Rafas. It’s close, but Asics wins the day. I’m not surprised, as the FF 3’s close cousin, the Asics Gel Resolution, frequently gets top marks in shoe reviews.
Unlike a standard sneaker with tongue and quarters, the Djokovic is basically a rubbery-plastic shell with an attached sock inside. I’m typically averse to the mono-sock design, as it often offers less stability, but in this case, my ankle was secure and I felt confident moving across the court. The mono-sock design wasn’t as breathable as the Federers, but once I laced the Court FFs up tight, I was off to the races.
Style: Oh, Novak. First in Grand Slam wins, last in drip. That’s too rough, perhaps, but compared to Roger’s grace and Rafa’s power, don’t we all fall short? That’s certainly the case with the FF 3 Novak. If any of these three shoes read most prominently as “technical apparel,” these shoes are they.
I’ve been wearing a pair in red with purple accents, a color combo that was as off-putting as the shoes performance was impressive. After one session playing the Novaks, my very stylish partner and I headed to a hip local coffee shop. I envied his standard Nike Court shoes the entire time, and felt like I had a garish pair of maraschino cherries on my feet. (The shoes also come in a vibrant shade of blue.) After that, I headed to a friend’s summer house, where his wife compared them to “crazy-colored” running shoes her husband wears. I immediately kicked them off and jumped straight into the lake.
Frequently Asked Questions About Men’s Tennis Shoes
OK, so which shoe is best for playing serious tennis?
How do I know if I actually need high-end shoes?
Forget on-court performance. Which tennis shoes are cooler, Stan Smiths or Rod Lavers?
If they’re all pretty damn close in performance, should I just buy the shoe of the guy I like the best?