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The Houston Oracle Challenger Review

What a week! As I write this review on my flight back to New York, there is so much I want to tell you. Not only did I have the opportunity to be a hitting partner with 6 pros, but had more time to have more time for informal conversations, as well as hang out together. This is definitely one of the big advantages of covering a “smaller-scale” tournament.

I would love to see more people as excited about these tournaments as I am. You get to see the next generation of up-and-coming talent, in a setting that allows for closer viewing, and more access to the players. This tournament is part of the #RoadtoIndianWells circuit that is a series of tournaments leading up to the ATP Masters 1000 event later in January bringing young and veteran talent. With what started in Southern California, grew to add a tournament in Chicago, now ends in the great state of Texas. This series of United States competition not only provides worldwide points on the ATP and WTA tours, but also awards points to automatically qualify for Indian Wells.

Hitting with the Players

I am very fortunate and grateful to be a part of the media crew for this Houston challenger. I was also really excited about getting a chance to be a hitting partner for so many pros. For you new Tweenerheads, you need to know that at one time, I had dreamed of becoming a professional tennis player, and hitting gives me a taste of living that life. Also, I enjoy all aspects of tennis, so I feel lucky to experience so many aspects of the game in these tournaments. This time I was part of the media and a hitting partner – don’t put me in a box as I want to see it all!

Although I don’t play competitively any longer, I still have the ability to be a human wall/backboard for these players. And let me tell you, I have never been more exhausted in my life. Not that I am in bad physical shape, but the constant grind and physicality of playing every day for over two hours at a time is harder than it looks. These pros hit hard, with crazy spins and don’t miss much. It’s one thing to watch them do it, but it’s another to be on the other side of the net. I hit for almost two hours a day and my body is already starting to feel sick due to exhaustion. It makes me appreciate even more the pros that do this for a living for years at a time.

Off the Court

I feel like part of my job is to find out who these players really are off the court? One thing I realized was that all these players are just normal people, who happen to be extraordinary atheltes. I am not trying to say that they aren’t special, but I am saying that fame and success doesn’t make them any less human than any of us “non-pros.” For example, I watched Tennys Sandgren play with a napkin during lunch for almost an hour for goodness sakes. Anyone would do that when they are bored.

While covering the tournament, I was fortunate enough to make some new friends (one of the best perks of traveling to new places). One of these new friends actually won the women’s doubles -- Maegan Manasse. The former Number one player in Division 1 tennis at Cal won her first WTA 125k event with fellow American, Jessica Pegula. After going to a Houston Rockets game and getting Susie’s Cakes downtown (great cupcakes btw), it’s just fun to talk about their experience. At Susie Cakes, I also had the chance to meet Whitney Osuigwe, the 16 year-old who just won the wildcard to the 2019 Aussie Open. I think the first question I asked her was, “What’s it like to be sponsored by Nike?” She said, “… it’s great!”

The Secret Finals

The weather was an ever present part of the conversation throughout the entire week in Houston. I believe Monday through Wednesday it was below 40 degrees and on Tuesday, I hit with a player outside and it could not have been more than 35 degrees.

Then the rain kicked in. I feel like I’ve covered tournaments in all sorts of weather. Especially when it comes to rain. The Citi Open really taught me patience with all that rain, and I’m glad that it only rained for a small amount of time here.

But the timing of the rain came with a price. On the final day of play, it rained and it rained and it rained. Not the most ideal of situations when it comes to the finals of a pro-level tournament being played outside. After a while, and continuous debate between tournament officials, they decided to move it indoors. Personally, they should have made that decision around 1 or 2, not 4PM when everyone had been waiting to play since 11 AM.

I am not sure what I am allowed to talk about when it comes to the venue or the final but when it was moved indoors, they did not allow anyone without a credential to watch the match let alone take a video or photo.

The WTA and ATP media had the rights to any video or photo taken for the final but no one could watch it or stream it, even though it was scheduled to be on the Tennis Channel. C’mon tennis associations, how do you expect to promote tennis when you keep such tight control of content. Let’s share the content, allow more people to see it, and more outlets to distribute it. How are we supposed these kind of tournaments when you constrain media distribution?

Overall

If you follow tennis pretty closely, you would know more about these smaller tournaments towards the end of the year. But since most of them don’t get enough publicity, it can be hard to follow. But these tournaments need to be known more. The quality is good, the venues are nice (maybe move to a place that has an indoor court next time in November), and the players are awesome.

Houston is a great city and it loves its tennis. I can’t wait to come back next year.