With the launch of the NikeCourt Air Zoom Ultrafly, the Swoosh brings tennis footwear up to speed. The "why" for the shoe's creation springs directly from athlete insight, while the "how" centers around the spirit collaboration among the "Nike collective," with the track and field, American football and soccer divisions all lending a hand. Below, a Q&A with Michael Hui, Nike Senior Designer of Tennis Footwear, goes into the specific performance benefits of the shoe, while also isolating which specific elements were borrowed from different sports technologies.
When you were tasked with designing what would ultimately become the NikeCourt Air Zoom Ultrafly, what was the brief you were given?
We were briefed to build a rocket ship for tennis that could take us to a completely new area in the sport and be disruptive on the court.
What athlete insights was the shoe born from?
A lot of the younger players have adopted other sports as part of their training regimen. For example, athletes will run sprints in order to get faster. Some players will even wear track spikes when they run because they like the way it fits and the sleek look it has. As a designer, you think visually. Putting the two together—a tennis shoe and a track spike—was the ignition point for what the rocket ship was to become.
Why is speed and quickness so important in tennis?
In tennis, you rely on fast moves to cut one direction—and then immediately cut the other direction. The sport has become so fast now in part because of the advancements in racket and string technologies. Players are also just bigger and stronger. They're looking at nutrition in a much deeper way. So what's the appropriate product that you give someone that is so in tune with tennis and their body? Is it going to be a big, bulky leather tennis shoe? No. It's going to be something that's like a track spike on the court. So that’s in large part the genesis of this project.
How did the NFL combine cleat help inspire the NikeCourt Air Zoom Ultra Fly?
Once we knew that we wanted to create a shoe to help athletes be faster on the court, we then started to look at the tools available to us in our Innovation Kitchen. Was there anything that’s being worked on from an innovation standpoint that can assist us? We came across a cleat that the training team had been working on for the NFL combine. It was designed for quick lateral cutting, which of course is a fundamental tennis movement. So we listened to what that design team was saying in terms of solving for quickness, traction and how the Flyknit collar gives athletes the confidence to go for their cuts. We thought it was an interesting combination of insights and innovations that we could actually apply to our track spike on the tennis court.
What elements from the track spike did you bring to the shoe?
One of the big breakthroughs was the full-length plate that's on the shoe. It's the type of plate that you would find on a track spike or on a global football cleat. It's a full-length plate that goes from top to bottom that helps provide propulsion. It's made out of Pebax, which is material that's springy, but that also provides support for the cutting moves inherent in tennis.
What elements from the global football boot did you bring to the shoe?
We used the propulsion plate as a chassis and then started building up the shoe and looked around for what would be a great fit opportunity. Traditionally, most tennis shoes have wider lasts. But we wanted something that doesn’t really have any slipping inside and that provides tremendous lockdown. So we had to look at a different last. We eventually went with the Nike Mercurial Superfly global football last, which is a bit more narrow and form-fitting. That’s what gives the shoe its distinct shape. If you were to ask someone what a tennis shoe looks like, they would say that it's usually made out of leather and pretty wide and boxy on the toe. This shoe really shatters a lot of those myths.
How does this project speak to the power of the Nike design collective?
This was a culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of different people—not just myself and the design team in the tennis, but also the Nike Innovation Kitchen and the computational design group. The team working on the combine cleat was also incredibly helpful, as that was a huge starting point for us. To see that shoe and understand that they're actually doing something that was similar to what we were doing was encouraging. They’ve done a ton of research that helped us set our direction.
How did you build durability into the shoe?
The engineered Kurim design on the upper is designed to move, but also designed to be very durable. We have durability maps that shoe exactly where the shoe wears. The protective Kurim material is included in those spots. It’s also become a signature design element of the shoe.
The shoe has an asymmetrical construction. Why is that?
Tennis is an asymmetrical sport. The asymmetry of the shoe comes from this idea of being able to quickly move and push off. The shoe is designed to provide maximum contact when you're on the corners. Tennis is played on the edges of the shoes. Because you're moving so quickly, you barely ever have time to really stand flat on your foot. The asymmetry from the bottom of the shoe reinforces the asymmetry that's happening through the laces and up into the cuff.
Was weight a consideration?
We took great pains to make the shoe light. We looked at exactly where you need traction and cushioning in the shoe and included it only in those areas. We also looked at the lightest-weight cushioning platform we could find, which are the hexagonal Zoom Air units. We placed them strategically, a big one in the heel and then two in the forefoot. That way it's optimized for cushioning and also for lightweight.
What performance benefit is the Flyknit cuff intended to provide?
The Flyknit cuff isn’t as much about ankle support as it is about spatial awareness. The goal is that it will help activate the senses in the athlete’s ankle, giving him or her the confidence to go all out in the shoe.
The shoe is built on two pods, rather than one single platform. What is the design intent of the two-pod construction?
We wanted to make sure the final product was a very fast, minimally designed shoe. By breaking up the midsole into two pods, we were able to reduce the shoe’s weight and increase its flexibility. The Phylon pods provide cushioning where you need it most, in the forefoot and heel. The added flexibility of the two-pod system helps the shoe move with your foot better.
Can you describe the traction pattern in the outsole?
The outsole features a herringbone pattern. What provides traction are the corners, or edges, of the herringbone. In order to add more traction, we doubled the amount of corners. It’s a subtle design element, but one that we think will help athletes perform better on the court.