Armed with this insight, the Nike design team, led by veteran Aaron Cooper, went to work. Cooper’s first task was to convince Williams that, contrary to common perception, stability could derive from less structure, not more.
“Serena was looking for a shoe with more stability that was bigger and more built up,” Cooper says. “What she actually needed was the complete opposite; something that was less built up and with a lower profile. She needed something that would really work with her as a second skin.”
Knowing that this concept would take some crafty explanation, Cooper brought the collection of KOBE signature shoes to his first meeting with Williams. The evolution of the series is a case study in the benefits of minimal design, as it graduates from bulkier models to more flexible, lower profile silhouettes.
“Serena is friends with Kobe and she obviously respects his capabilities on the court,” Cooper says. “So she really responded to his story and was able to envision that translating to her performance.”
With Williams on board, the design team then began exploring potential solutions in the Nike Innovation Kitchen. It’s in this top-secret area where a team imagines and invents the future of sports performance products. However, it was a prototype from the past with unconventional inspiration that sparked the initial NikeCourt Flare concept.
“The very first seed of the idea actually came from working with a Kung Fu master,” Cooper says. “An insight we gained from him was this idea of unencumbered mobility. The thought is that a product should be an extension of your body.”
This particular thinking first surfaced in a protoype for training and then later found form in basketball. A number of core attributes from the Kung Fu-inspired prototype have influenced elements of the NikeCourt Flare, none more notable than the shoe’s neoprene ankle cuff. The cuff helps deliver awareness of the body’s movement in space, which provides Williams with a feeling of stability and, thus, increased confidence. This helps her attack each shot and make each cut with uncompromised surefootedness.
“Mentally, when you have something around your ankle, you don’t think about it turning as much,” Williams says. “It feels like you have more balance.”
In addition to providing stability, Cooper and the team focused on designing for flexibility. The shoe’s neoprene cuff connects to an internal bootie, providing a second skin-like fit and promoting natural foot motion. A drop-in midsole—meaning it’s not bonded to the overall silhouette—augments this sensation and delivers cushioning directly underfoot.
Making the shoe lightweight was another key consideration. The NikeCourt Flare’s minimal upper construction utilizes layers of composite material that work together to deliver breathability, strength and durability. In addition, the make-up of the outsole is informed by durability mapping. By studying how tennis players move, the design team was able to engineer in areas of added durability only where necessary. Including only what the athlete needs and nothing more contributes to a lighter, more flexible shoe.
The Nike design team relied on durability mapping to strategically place added durability in the outsole where it’s needed most.
“We obsessed every millimeter in the NikeCourt Flare because millimeters translate to milliseconds in sport,” Cooper says. “And for Serena, milliseconds can be the difference between just getting the ball over the net and hitting a winner.”
Williams is planning for these winners to come in bunches on the grass courts of England. Equipped with the NikeCourt Flare, she’ll be able to attack crosscourt forehands and backhands down the line free of distraction.
“This shoe really is an extension of my foot,” Williams says. “And when you think about it, if you’re at home in your house and you don’t have shoes on, you just don’t think about anything else. It’s just your body. And that’s what this shoe is all about.”
The NikeCourt Flare is now available in select Nike retailers