Tennis Shoe Foundations: How to Find the Perfect Court Shoes

Sneakers, gym shoes, running shoes, tennis shoes, trainers, kicks. There are all sorts of regionalisms that refer to the same thing, but when it comes to tennis, we’re not just referring to a genre of shoe, but also its function and purpose.

Why do I need to buy a separate pair of shoes for tennis? Can't I just wear ones I already own?

While it’s very tempting to play tennis in running shoes or inexpensive gym shoes, this is actually rather dangerous. Tennis shoes, or specifically court shoes, are designed for the abrupt, explosive start-and-stop lateral, medial, and diagonal movements that tennis requires. Running shoes aren’t designed to stop on a dime and instead will add to your momentum and propel you further in whatever direction you’re moving. This can make for some serious tripping, falling, and injuring no matter how fit, agile, or quick you are. Gym shoes don’t have near the amount of traction or tread needed for tennis, and they certainly don’t provide good protection against any kind of toe drag, scuffing, or skidding, let alone occasional sliding. Finally, tennis shoes usually have supportive and stabilizing technology that protects your ankles and feet from the kinds of movement that tennis can require (see Nadal sliding on clay or Serena sliding into the splits on a hard court).

Why is there such a big price difference? How can I get a good shoe without my wallet hating me?

Even though expense is a very real worry, a $130 pair of tennis shoes is more than worth it, especially when considering how they will protect your body and improve your game. $130 isn’t worth a potentially much more costly injury. That said, any shoe that hovers around the $100 mark is good quality.

How do I find a shoe that fits me without trying it on?

Now, the actual shoe shopping itself presents its own challenges as well. Since tennis is a relatively niche sport in the US, finding retailers that sell court shoes are rare, especially if you don’t live in a tennis area or a big city. Combined with the slow death of brick-and-mortar businesses, specialty stores or pro shops are also an endangered species, which means that most people must buy their tennis shoes online. Given the inability to try on, the slight variations between feet and shoes, and frequently inconvenient or onerous returns processes, online shoe shopping is a first-world nightmare.

The more you learn about your foot type, the better prepared you’ll be to find shoes with features you need to perform your best and avoid injury on the court. There are three foot types and several ways to determine which is yours:

Pronated: Players with pronated feet will notice excessive shoe wear on the inside area near the balls of the feet. If you step in water with your bare feet and leave a mark on the ground, you’ll see that the whole impression of your foot appears with little or no visible space. If you are among the 60% of the population with pronated feet, you’ll want to find shoes with superior lateral support to prevent injury to your knees or ankles.

Supinated: If your shoes are worn down on the outside of the heel and forefoot, you likely have supinated feet. Your wet feet test would reveal a large empty space in the center arch area of the foot mark. Players will want to invest in shoes that provide greater flexibility and shock absorption, plus added space for the heel.

Ideal: Players with even shoe wear and a balanced/neutral foot mark in the wet test have an ideal foot type that is suitable for most tennis shoes.

To sum everything up, here are a few heuristics that'll help you on your shoe shopping journey:

  1. Court shoes tend to run smaller and narrower than gym shoes or sneakers. If you’re a runner, then you’ll understand. The general rule of thumb is to go up one half size from whatever size you normally wear unless otherwise noted. Your toes will thank you later.
  2. Lighter shoes = quicker movement and heavier shoes = durability. There are plenty of shoes that balance both, but just know that leaning heavily one way typically requires sacrificing something as well.
  3. The only difference between clay shoes and all-surface shoes is the outsole tread. A clay shoe has a herringbone tread that helps dislodge clay particles more easily, but it’s usually not worth the extra trouble unless you are a frequent clay court player. Shoes are made to perform on all surfaces.
  4. 6 month warranties usually indicate a higher quality shoe, but not always. These also only apply to the outsoles, not the laces, toes, or upper construction. For more information, click here.