“Money, it’s gotta be the shoes!” That was all that Mars Blackmon (a.k.a. Spike Lee) could come up with while trying to explain what made Michael Jordan the best player in the universe in a famous 1989 Nike commercial. His Airness graciously downplayed the impact that the Air Jordan V had on his game in the ad, but there is no denying that sneakers have played a role in Jordan’s allure from the 80s all the way through present day. Could some fresh-looking kicks inspired by Jordan be helping drive Roger Federer’s resurgent play at the U.S. Open?
Federer has not won a Grand Slam Tournament since 2012 and, at 33, is clearly in the twilight of his career. But last night Federer rolled to a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain to advance to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open. The win improved Federer’s record in Flushing to 71-9, the best in the Open Era. And his record at night at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is now 25-1.
But it isn’t just that he’s won, it’s how he’s won. Federer has been playing brash, serve-and-volley tennis that is eminently fun to watch, and he’s been doing it in a pair of shoes that have sneakerheads fiending for a pair of tennis kicks for the first time since the days of Agassi.
At the U.S. Open, Federer has been playing in the limited edition NikeCourt Zoom Vapor AJ3 by Jordan, a mashup between the Nike Zoom Vapor 9.5 tennis shoe that Federer prefers and the iconic Air Jordan 3. The Jordan 3 pre-dates “It’s gotta be the shoes” by a couple of years, but its place in sneaker lore is without question. It’s the shoe that MJ wore in the 1987 Slam Dunk Contest when he took off from the free-throw line. It’s the shoe that introduced elephant print. It’s the shoe that made news when Jordan Brand announced they would stop making it (for now).
For Federer to step out onto Arthur Ashe in such a bold shoe is a statement. The Swiss star has always mingled just fine in fashion circles. This is, after all, the man who wore a white blazer as his warmup jacket at Wimbledon, and who was called out by Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour in her ice bucket challenge. But Federer’s fashion choices always felt a little too highbrow, a touch too aristocratic. With these Zoom Vapor AJ3s, Federer is showing a little—dare we say it?—swag and it is mirrored in his at-the-net, aggressive play.
Jordan actually showed up when Federer debuted the shoes in his first round match against Marinko Matosevic. It was MJ’s first trip to the US Open and Federer put on a show that clearly left Jordan impressed. You can’t help but feel that if Jordan played tennis, he would have pulled off that same between-the-legs shot into his opponents butt that Federer displayed.
It’s a good look for Federer. There is plenty of speculation about how much longer he will continue to play. (Federer has played in every Grand Slam tournament for the past 15 years.) But whereas the memories of most sports superstars at the end of their careers, Jordan included, are bland and tired, in Federer’s case the exact opposite appears to be true.
Listen to Federer and Jordan discuss their collaboration: