Rafael Nadal is among many other top tennis players that use custom sneakers with significant differences from signature retail pairs available for purchase by retailers.
Rafa Nadal is notoriously superstitious, so it comes as no surprise that he doesn't always change sneaker models with annual updates. Nadal's custom pairs do not feature the air max bubble from some of his endorsed shoes like the Nike Courtballistec 4.3, and his pairs also have a detached tongue. While each new Nike model has featured an updated outsole tread pattern, Rafa's have always remained the same, even up to the current shoe he wears.
Currently, Nadal is endorsing the Nike Zoom Vapor Cage 4, however he has not been wearing the current model. For the most part, he is sticking with his customized Nike Zoom Cage 3 with a custom outsole and detached tongue. Nadal has now endorsed several models that have the attached tongue design, but he has always remained wearing pairs with detached tongues. We have seen this in the Nike Air Breathe Cage III, the Nike Zoom Cage 3, and presently the Nike Zoom Vapor Cage 4 to name a few. This likely can be attributed to his foot problem that he has had since 2005, Muller Weiss Syndrome.
See video below for our insight on Rafa's pair from the 2011 Australian Open.
There are definitely differences on the outsole. Rafa's outsoles use the tread pattern from the Nike Air Max Courtballistec 2 point 3, the 2010 endorsed model. This area on the retail outsole has a much thicker rubber, which makes it a bit more durable but also heavier. It's safe to say Rafa doesn't have to worry about how long his shoes last, so he opts for the lighter option.
While there are certainly differences, Rafa's 2011 custom shoes are actually fairly close to the retail pair when compared with some more recent models like the Nike Zoom Cage 3.
Rafael Nadal's Custom Nike Zoom Cage 3 for 2018 Roland Garros, with detached tongue and "10" accent." Image per Flickr