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Buying Tennis Shoes – How to Choose Your Perfect Shoes

In my days as a tennis coach, one of the questions I’d often get asked was whether it was okay to wear ordinary trainers or sneakers on court. The answer was a resounding ‘No!’.

You may be proud of your brand new Air Zoom Alphaflys but running shoes are not designed for the court and for good reason. 

Tennis is a game of dynamic movement – Explosive sprints, lateral bursts and sudden changes of direction. 

Running shoes are great but they’re designed ‘solely’ (sorry, not sorry) for forward motion. Tennis shoes have flatter soles to allow for easier movement in all directions. They also provide specific support for the ankles, toe guards for those toe-dragging serves and non-marking soles to protect the court. 

Many tennis shoes are heavier than regular trainers because they require more durable outsoles and more engineered uppers for stability and comfort.

So how do you choose the right tennis shoes for you?

There are three key elements to consider:

Which court surface will you mostly be playing on?

What size fits you best?

What’s your style of play?

Court Surface

Probably the most important thing to consider when selecting your shoes is what type of court you’re most likely to play on. Outsoles come in three main categories and are designed for specific surfaces.

Hard Courts

As you’ll see in our piece on Surface Speeds, the most common court surface in most countries is the Hard Court. It’s simply the cheapest and easiest to maintain. 

Playing on Hard Courts requires a tough, durable outsole that can take a pounding. Hard Court shoes tend to come with a light, mixed grip and plenty of cushioning in the midsole – not only to absorb shock and make it easier on your joints but to transfer that energy into your step.

They offer extra support in the ankles to prevent rolling and a built up toe guard as the surface can really scrape if you’re prone to dragging your back toes (guilty!). 

Clay Courts

Clay Court shoes come with a full herringbone patterned grip which is specifically designed to allow for sliding but provides enough traction for forward movement.

They also flex easily to prevent clay from getting trapped in the grip (a quick tap with the racket should shake any debris loose). 

The upper should be knitted tightly to the ankle to stop dust from getting into your shoes. 

Grass Courts

Access to Grass Courts? Lucky you. Except that now you need another set of shoes. 

A notoriously slick surface, grass demands a grippier outsole. Grass court shoes come with small pimples – almost like tiny studs – for greater traction. 

As grass has a lot more give, it’s more forgiving on your joints so the shoes don’t require as much in the way of cushioning and protection. For that reason they’re often lighter. 

While not ideal, you can probably get away with using Hard Court shoes on Clay and vice versa but neither will work on grass.

Foot Size

Once you’ve decided which type of tennis shoe you need, the obvious next question is what size to get. 

As with all shoes, sizes will vary from brand to brand and model to model. What’s important to get right, especially with tennis shoes, is not just the length but the width. Tennis is largely a sideways game – lots of scampering, lots of lateral shuffles. It’s important to get the width of the shoe right to avoid rubbing, blisters or worse. 

In terms of getting the right length a good rule of thumb is the thumb rule. Leave a gap of around half an inch – or the width of your thumb – between the toe and the end of the shoe. 

That allows room for your feet to breathe and swell as your body heat rises without your foot moving around in the shoe. 

Do bear in mind though that like all sneakers, tennis shoes get a little looser over time. 

Playing Style

The final factor to consider when selecting a new pair of tennis shoes is your style of play. 

Are you a speedy serve and volleyer, scurrying to the net at any opportunity? Or do you plant yourself on the baseline and wear your opponent down? 

If you’re light and nimble you might prefer a more lightweight shoe to get you around the court faster. 

There is of course a trade off here. Lightweight shoes are by design less built up, providing less cushioning in the midsole and support in the ankle. If you’re slower around the court but need more support for the joints, there are more engineered options out there for you.

The Soft Shoe Shuffle

A question I get asked a lot is how often should I replace my tennis shoes? And the annoying answer I like to give is ‘well, it depends…’.

Shoes will deteriorate at different rates depending on how often you play, which surface you play on, how heavy your frame, how durable the shoes themselves…

The best you can do is stay alert to the shoe’s performance. If you come off court feeling sore and achey you might consider whether the midsole is worn out. If you’re not getting the grip you once were, take a look and see if it’s wearing down. 

If you are in the market for a new pair, be sure to check out our guide to the best tennis shoes for this year.

FAQ

Should I ‘size up’ my tennis shoes?

Many people recommend buying tennis shoes that are half a size too big to prevent the toes from blistering as the foot swells with the heat of exercise.

Here at Heavy Topspin we would discourage that. Choose a shoe that fits you right and makes you comfortable. Just remember to allow the width of a thumb between your toes and the front of the shoe and that should give you all the room you need.

Will my tennis shoes stretch over time?

Yes! Like all shoes, tennis shoes will ‘break in’ a little bit over the first few weeks of use.

It’s another reason not to size up. The shoes will naturally become a tiny bit more roomy the more you play.

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