Retro Tennis Shoes Are Taking Over the Sneaker World in 2024

Photographs: Getty Images, Nike; Collage: Gabe Conte

Last December, an odd little controversy erupted in the shoe world when supposed footage from a Zoom meeting at Nike turned up on social media and promptly went viral. The clip showed a brief but feisty argument between former tennis champion John McEnroe and the rapper Travis Scott over the name of their upcoming Nike collaboration—a sneaker that was either going to be called the Cactus Mac or the Cactus Jack. “Show a little respect. This is my shoe,” McEnroe pleaded, after Scott insisted that he preferred the Cactus Jack name. “I’m not feeling it,” Scott replied nonchalantly. “It sounds like a burger or something.”

Scott won the argument, and the Cactus Jack, a special-edition riff on John McEnroe’s signature retro sneaker, the Nike Mac Attack, was released a few weeks later and sold out everywhere. (Like almost every Travis Scott-branded sneaker, the Cactus Jack now resells for several hundred dollars over retail on sites like StockX.) The regular, non-Scott version of the shoe, a remake of the original Mac Attack from 1984, was released at the same time, though with little of the fanfare or insatiable demand. Either way, the argument catalyzed a ton of attention for the Cactus Jack and the Mac Attack, as almost everyone in the sneaker world talked about it for a week—even if the whole thing turned out to be a publicity stunt, as Scott later appeared to admit.

The Nike x Travis Scott Mac Attack “Cactus Jack,” the shoe over which Travis Scott and John McEnroe seemingly staged a Zoom argument.
The Nike x Travis Scott Mac Attack “Cactus Jack,” the shoe over which Travis Scott and John McEnroe seemingly staged a Zoom argument.

But what was striking about the situation wasn’t so much the drama between the rapper and the legendary athlete. It was that all of this was revolving around a tennis shoe.

Tennis shoes occupy a weird space in the sneaker industry. On the one hand, many of the top stars have marquee shoes with sizable price tags and dedicated fanbases, like Roger Federer’s The Roger Pro from On. Brands like Asics, New Balance, and Lacoste make their own flagship tennis shoes beloved by amateurs and pros alike, and like marathon running, tennis is a sport that demands an elite sneaker for technical advantages. On the other hand, many performance sneakers that were popular decades ago have since transitioned to run-of-the-mill lifestyle shoes: the Adidas Stan Smith is one of the most common shoes on the market, even if it lacks the state-of-the art-edge of a modern performance shoe or the trendiness of, say, an Adidas Samba.

What tennis shoes have rarely had, at least in recent years, is hype. Though there have been few exceptions—a Virgil Abloh-designed Air Max made for Serena Williams, a Zoom Vapor for Federer made to look like an old Jordan 3—tennis shoes simply haven’t earned the kind of interest among sneakerheads that make them perennial day-one sell-outs or must-have collector’s items. Many of the most admired tennis shoes of the ’80s and ’90s have faded into obscurity or become more or less impossible to find, never having hit quite like a pair of Air Jordans; few designers seeking inspiration for a new collab look to the sport. They just haven’t had that “It” factor.

Until now. People began rediscovering the Mac Attack in the last couple of years, as stars like LeBron James were photographed wearing vintage pairs in a way that brought new attention to a shoe most fans had forgotten about (if they’d even heard of it to begin with). Travis Scott was seen wearing a pair while sitting courtside at a Brooklyn Nets game during the playoffs in 2023, months before his collaboration with the model was announced. And finally, Nike re-released the original edition of the Mac Attack as a retro drop last June, sticking to the specifications of the classic silhouette in the original gray-and-black colorway seen on the court in 1984.

Andre Agassi's iconic Nike Air Tech Challenge 2, which is set to re-release this fall.
Andre Agassi's iconic Nike Air Tech Challenge 2, which is set to re-release this fall.

McEnroe isn't the only former tennis star to get in on the retro revival action. Andre Agassi recently showed off the forthcoming return of one of his most beloved signature sneakers, the Nike Air Tech Challenge 2, wearing a spruced-up pair of the classic shoes on Instagram in early February. First released in 1990, the sneaker originally debuted in the popular “Hot Lava” colorway, which has also been used by Nike on LeBron’s signature basketball shoes and elsewhere. Nike’s bringing the Air Tech Challenge 2 back in that famous colorway again, clearly tapping into the nostalgia fans have for the early 90s favorite. (The shoe is set to drop this September.)

And although Federer has his own On line—and a stake in the brand—his former signature shoe, the Nike Air Zoom Vapor, came back in a retro model this past summer, minus the “RF” insignia that marked the now-lapsed endorsement from the retired star. Nike put the shoe out in the familiar “Racer Blue” colorway drawn from one of the most iconic Air Jordan 3s, replete with the gray cement pattern made famous on Jordan’s sneaker. It was a nod to Federer’s own sneakerhead credentials that also drew an interesting parallel to the retro basketball world. Though this particular release didn’t blow up, it’s not hard to imagine future retro revivals in a similar vein making more of a splash in the months and years to come.

The Social Status x Nike Attack “Status Symbol,” which drops on Friday.
The Social Status x Nike Attack “Status Symbol,” which drops on Friday.

There are even some hype collaborations on the horizon. Social Status, the hugely popular sneaker and streetwear retailer known for their hype collabs with footwear brands, have just unveiled an upcoming twist on the Nike Attack tennis sneaker. The Social Status x Nike Attack “Status Symbol,” which officially drops March 8th, has been given a premium revamp by the brand, with fine suede and ivory nylon detailing, and both looks and feels like an incredibly high-end version of the recently retro'd silhouette. It’s the kind of shoe that would have been unthinkable even a year ago, but that fits perfectly in with the current moment. Retro tennis shoes are back, and the hype is only getting started.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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