Likes: The 851 represents a strong shift for New Balance, which has created an extremely lightweight performance shoe built low to the ground. Weighing in at at sleek 11.2 oz., this is the lightest shoe we tested in 2011. In bringing the shoe lower to the ground, New Balance has not sacrificed stability. For fast players who place a premium on changing directions quickly, stepping into the 851 after wearing heavier shoes that are built higher off the ground may well feel like trading in an SUV in favor of a sports car capable of cornering with more sharpness and authority.
New Balance has a well-earned reputation for creating performance shoes that place a premium on fit and durability. The new 851 retains those key qualities while offering a more cutting-edge cosmetic—especially in the striking black-and-yellow men's 851—and creating a shoe that is nearly three ounces lighter than the brand's spring entry, the 1187. The synthetic mesh upper with internal support system contributes to both to the 851's light weight and breathability, while the Ndure cage supplies reinforcement in toe drag areas while evoking a stylistic similarity to the Nike Air Max Courtballistec 3.3. This is a flexible shoe that can be worn right out of the box. Male wear testers gave the 851 high marks for break-in time (9.4), weight (9.1), ventilation (9) and stability (8.7). In keeping with New Balance's commitment of offering various widths, the 851 is available in D and 2E widths.
Dislikes: The 851 incorporates thinner EVA and is so strikingly light and low to the ground that some wear-testers questioned if the shoes' durability and comfort will hold up over the course of time. (New Balance backs the 851 with a 12-month outsole durability guarantee—the longest of any shoe we tested this year.) Some wear testers reported the 851's feather weight comes at the expense of the comfort that is a New Balance trademark, though the shoe scored an 8.8 in the cushioning category. The herringbone outsole offers a slightly simpler traction pattern than the more expensive 1187. If you're a big, strong, physical player with a tendency to punish shoes, you may want to try the heavier 1187.
Bottom Line: In our past reviews of New Balance shoes, wear testers have praised their performance and fit, though some pointed to the sometimes bland cosmetics and bulky weight as two areas the brand could improve. New Balance has listened to consumers in constructing a feather-light shoe that provides a stable ride in a more aggressive, eye-catching cosmetic. It will work best for quick players who crave maneuverability, and the shoe provides excellent value at a reasonable price. The 851 is a winner.
Dr. David G. Sharnoff is a podiatrist practicing in Shelton, Conn. He has served as TENNIS’ shoe adviser since 1986 and as a consultant to the WTA since 1989. A graduate of Ohio State, he played on the university’s varsity tennis team for four years and remains an avid, active player.
If your competitive game demands the ultimate match-day court shoe, lace up in the New Balance 851. This featherweight tennis performer will keep you both comfortable and on your toes, ready to return your opponent's killer forehand volley.
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