Shoes in Action: What is Damage?

The beginning of the professional tennis season starts with the Australian Open in January. With that in mind, let’s explore a donation of Nike Challenge Court tennis shoes autographed by John McEnroe in 1984. He gave them to Mrs. Bata after a Players International Championship match she attended at the National Tennis Centre at York University in Toronto, Canada. Mr. McEnroe continued to play professional tennis until his retirement in 1992; 1984 is considered one of his top performance years.

Damage is defined in the Conservation of Cultural Property – Main General Terms & Definitions as a ‘non-beneficial alteration’. When you look at these tennis shoes – do you see damage that requires conservation treatment or is it just change from the original state when manufactured that indicates how they were used?

One of the first things you will notice is the condition of the leather on the proper right side of the vamp of the right foot sneaker. Mr. McEnroe told Mrs. Bata that he purposefully slashed this side of the shoe to relieve the pressure on a sore part of his foot that caused him pain while he was playing. This alteration is part of the history of the shoe and, therefore is an integral part of its interpretation.

Surface changes to athletic footwear worn during an athletic performance are also part of the shoe’s history. On the shoe, in the photograph below, you can see the blue dye on the Nike swoosh has been rubbed off the surface of the leather as the shoe was dragged across the surface of the tennis court slid to return a serve. Another sign of performance wear is visible on the toe end. The white midsole has been abraded exposing the blue rubber of the outsole beneath.

Another interesting detail: if you look at the linings of the collars (around the ankle area) you will notice the colour of the fabric is not the same; one is pale grey, the other is blue. While the style of the shoes is identical, this one difference may have been a need to keep the right shoe as it had been altered for comfort and swap out its mate for a new shoe. The red braid accent is a slightly different hue; the foam padding (visible through tears in the linings) also differs in colour. The foam on the right shoe is an orangey-yellow colour; on the left shoe it is black.

In the pictures above you can also see the external cover of the ankle padding is a white film applied to a textile substrate. This coating was made from a plastic called polyurethane (PU). It is exhibiting all its usual characteristics of deterioration: it is sticky; it is cracking in areas of mechanical stress from wear (1st photo) and delaminating from the fabric to which it was applied (2nd photo). Another deteriorating plastic element is the PU foam padding on the shoe in the first photo. Originally it would have been white but has turned colour as it aged. Most of this damage is part of the story of these shoes; the deteriorating plastic components are a result of inherent vice that can be slowed down but not permanently arrested.

The last event played at the National Tennis Centre was the Rogers AT & T Women’s Cup in 2003. The venue had become too small and was replaced with the Rexall Centre which opened in 2004; which was then renamed the Aviva Centre in 2015. The Rogers Cup was cancelled for the first time in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but there are high hopes that with the rollout of the vaccine the event scheduled for August 2021 will go ahead as planned. Mr. McEnroe can be heard as a commentator for tennis matches on the professional tour.

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