Shoe Preview: Nike Air Zoom Zero

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A first-ever execution of footwear technology for Nike makes its debut in a brand-new on-court model for tennis, the NikeCourt Air Zoom Zero. Built from scratch using the unique construction of a full-length Zoom Air bag—the first time a Nike tennis model has gone full Zoom Air underfoot—to a fresh construction and aesthetic on the upper, the July 19 release of the new performance model puts a focus on zero distractions.

“The whole idea of the Zoom Zero was built around first step quickness and explosiveness,” says Alex Restivo, NikeCourt footwear product director. “It wasn’t an easy project to start.”

Nike features three main cushioning styles: Air Max, foam and Zoom Air. Zoom fills air bags with a series of highly tensioned polyester or nylon fibers that snap the air bag back into position after each compression. The tennis line has long embraced Zoom Air as its highest-performance technology, but never in the full-length version. And certainly never like this. 

“Zoom Air is definitely the preference from athletes and that drove us to use the full-length Zoom Air bag,” says Geoff Hale, Zoom Air developer. “But the challenge was they wanted the cushioning directly under the heel and responsiveness in the forefoot.” 

To get that benefit of comfort on powerful heel strikes, designers needed to put the air bag above the midsole and under on the heel. To gain the best responsiveness in the forefoot, though, the bag needed to sit under the midsole, above the forefoot. “By curving the air bag it sits against the heel and curves down and sits against the outsole,” Hale says. “It is an advantage for the athlete for both needs and provides a forward movement and flow from heel to forefoot.”

The curved execution comes as a first for Nike, one that will soon make its way beyond tennis into other models. The design also provides a new on-foot sensation, Restivo says, with the strike pad on the heel promoting forward movement toward the forefoot.

With a focus on a quick first step, Restivo says he wanted the upper to look and feel fast, unlike the traditional tennis designs of excess overlays and construction, by embracing a minimalistic design. A largely one-piece mesh upper accomplished the aesthetic and with a half-bootie construction on the tongue, stability moves inside. “It is a very clean, fast look that helps with lockdown,” he says. 

The trickiest part was balancing the one-piece upper with internal stability, blending where the tongue stopped and the upper material started. To further promote durability, the Zoom Zero—which borrowed insights from Nike’s recent Breaking 2 marathon project—brings outsole rubber onto the upper and adds rubber pods over the bottom two eyelets to protect laces. 

From the outset of building a new model, Restivo says designers had lightweight construction in mind, which offers a constant struggle against durability. As athletes tested the sneaker, they were drawn in by durability, inspiring the team to inject more as they built. “We tried to balance the two and blend the two uniquely,” he says. Hale agreed: “We started with a lightweight mentality, but with athlete input we shifted to a right weight.” 

Throughout the process, the team embraced the concept of zero, ultimately so much it became part of the shoe’s name. From stripping the shoe down into something with zero excess to building something from “ground zero,” Restivo says the Zoom Zero was about crafting a new performance design for tennis.

“The reactions we have gotten from our athletes is ‘wow, that is a tennis shoe?” he says. “That is the reaction we are looking for. A tennis shoe can look like something completely different but still have the properties of a tennis shoe.”

The Zoom Zero first came to the court in January on the feet of young American Frances Tiafoe and Ukrainian Elina Svitolina. The two were key parts of testing the shoe during the December offseason. As a way to thank the athletes for helping with testing, Nike created special player-edition versions for the two, borrowing from the sneaker culture of basketball and trying to infuse that into tennis. 

Tiafoe wore his personalized “Oreo” colorway adorned with his “Big Foe” nickname at Indian Wells. Early versions also had oversized “NikeCourt” wordmarks across the heel. Jack Sock and Sloane Stephens have worn a more refined model—still with the Nike Swoosh in a new forefoot location—already this season, all leading to the launch of the NikeCourt Zoom Zero in black.

The debut “Melting Pot” colorway includes a nod to New York City—as do all three of the sneaker’s debut colorways—and features a graphic on the tongue and air bag that melds flags from the countries of Nike-sponsored athletes. “We wanted to make a statement launching in the black colorway,” Restivo says, embracing the idea of an aesthetic and performance unlike other tennis models. “This is the anti-establishment colorway.” 

Expect to see a “Workwear” pack release in tan and pink ahead of the U.S. Open that signifies a grinding effort in New York and then a “Cut and Sew” style aimed at female athletes that times with both the U.S. Open and New York’s Fashion Week.

New technologies, fresh aesthetics and inspired colorways has NikeCourt planning for a new tennis sneaker culture. A culture motivated by zero.

Tim Newcomb covers sneakers for Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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