Likes: Players who value a light, performance shoe will appreciate the new 851, which represents a strong shift for New Balance. The brand has created an extremely lightweight shoe built low to the ground. Weighing in at a lithe 9.6 oz., this is the lightest shoe we tested in 2011, and prompted one wear tester to compare its feel to a ballet slipper on court. But in bringing the shoe lower to the ground, New Balance has not sacrificed stability.
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 creating a shoe that is nearly three ounces lighter than the brand's spring entry, the 1187. The synthetic mesh upper contributes to both the light weight and breathability of the shoe. This is a flexible shoe that can be worn right out of the box. Wear testers gave the 851 high marks for its light weight (8.8), break-in time (8.7) and ventilation (8.1) In keeping with New Balance's policy of offering various widths, the 851 is available in B and D widths.
Dislikes: The heel to forefoot ratio of the shoe is almost on the same plane, which some women may find discomforting (some wear testers who wear high heels off court noted this adjustment), and a few wear testers felt the toe box was a bit too snug; however most wear testers were satisfied with the shoe's overall comfort. 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.) Wear testers were not as impressed with the comfort level of the shoe as the men did with their version. Women graded the shoe's cushioning at 7.9, compared to the 8.8 score male wear testers reported for the men's 851. 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 the performance and fit of the shoes, 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, as well as doubles players who transition from baseline to net. This 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.
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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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