I’m not sure when it happened exactly—perhaps it can be traced to Christopher McDougall’s bestseller, Born to Run—but minimalist running shoes have become all the rage. I’m not much of a distance runner, but I do like running sprint intervals using a modestly cushioned shoe with almost no heel-to-toe drop. When I hit the gym I work out wearing Vibram FiveFingers, which are little more than sturdier water shoes. It’s fair to say I like my athletic footwear to be spartan.
But running is mostly a straight-ahead endeavor and working out only requires a strong connection between feet and floor. Neither incorporates the lateral movement and the stop-and-start change of directions of playing tennis. To guard against such aggressive actions, tennis footwear tends to be more protective and supportive. The fine line has always been providing these necessities without burdening the shoe with too much weight.
In terms of a modern minimalist tennis shoe, the K-Swiss Ultra Express is about as close as you can get. It’s basically a soft, breathable, seamless upper—the first time K-Swiss has ever done this—and an outsole. There’s a TPU plate in the mid-foot to anchor the arch for stability, but otherwise the features are all designed to keep the weight very low and the ventilation high. From a comfort standpoint it works quite well. If you’re looking for athletic shoe to walk around in, you could a lot worse than the Ultra Express.
From a performance standpoint, however, it really depends on your preferences for a shoe. I happen to like the advantages of less weight, and at 14.5 oz. for my size 12, I’m not sure I’ve ever competed in something lighter. I felt quick and responsive, and there was still enough cushioning in the shoes to absorb court impact. I tested them on clay and the herringbone outsole grabbed the surface well. It impressed the playtesters—especially females—who participated in our shoe reviews for the most recent issue of Tennis magazine as well; the Ultra Express won the Editor’s Choice for Best Lightweight shoe.
While less can be more to some, it can be too little for others. Players who like more meat on their feet may find these shoes too barebones and lacking enough stability. Like wearing a minimalist running shoe, I did feel as though my feet were working more with the Ultra Express. For bigger, heavy movers who abuse their shoes—perhaps why our male testers weren’t quite as complimentary—this could be a serious demerit, as well as the Ultra Express’ lack of an outsole warranty. Such a combination may not make these shoes the best option for those who toil predominantly on hard courts.
So if you’ve always worn the likes of the Adidas Barricade or Asics Gel Resolution, this shoe might feel too naked for serious competition. But if you’re surefooted and prefer lightweight shoes—maybe even a minimalist running shoe fan—the Ultra Express offers a pretty unique and attractive ride.
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