Two years ago I covered my first tennis event as credentialed media. I had moved to Houston in the summer of 2012, and started The Changeover with Amy and Lindsay in the fall of that year. Hence, the 2013 US Men’s Clay Court Championship, an ATP 250 event held somewhere inside this monstrously large city, seemed like an obvious opportunity to go through the experience of being on-site tennis media.
To make a very long story short, it was a blast. If you dare, you can read my bad writing during that week here. I promise to try my best to do better this time.
Two whole years have gone by, and the temptation is to say that much has changed. I didn’t make it to the tournament last year. Why? I was completely burned out by tennis, and had recently started a new job (that had nothing to do with the sport, or with writing, really. Unless writing emails counts). Now I’m not burned out by tennis – quite the opposite. Which is not only helpful, but the main reason I wanted to go back to the River Oaks Country Club this year. The excitement I feel for being around the sport for nine straight days reminds me a lot of what I felt back in 2013.
Something that has indeed changed from two years ago is that I now feel much more comfortable and confident about living in Houston. It’s a unique city with a mostly undeserved bad rap. Sure, large parts of it aren’t the prettiest. Sure, its 627 square miles might seem unmanageable, overwhelming, and delirious. It’s the equivalent of a Ford F-750 (only that big because…you can make it that big? Everything is bigger in Texas!).
In reality, Houston is a vibrant city. There is incredible food here, and most of it reasonably priced. There is always a festival of some sort going on. The highway system is overcrowded during rush hour, but at least it’s mostly coherent. The food trucks and the craft beer are awesome. The “winter” here is glorious. The summer…not so much (and it lasts six sweltering, oppressive months). But it’s sunny!
As my comfort level with the city has grown, I’ve realized that one thing I am better aware of nowadays is River Oaks.
What I tell visiting family and friends when I drive them through River Oaks is that the only houses in this neighborhood are the guest houses. All you see when you drive are mansions. Enormous, ridiculous mansions.
It’s quite pleasant to walk around the neighborhood (you can park pretty much anywhere on the street) and take in the different architecture styles, the very old and beautiful trees, and the general sense of impossible wealth. The neighborhood is pretty for me in the same way some churches can be: aesthetically pleasing buildings inside of which I am not likely to spend any time whatsoever.
The funny thing about River Oaks within the context of a seemingly chaotic city that has no zoning is that it lies nearly smack in the middle of the big blob.
And the country club is the heart of the mansion forest.
I remember that two years ago I wanted to write about my drive to the tournament. I never managed to do it, likely because I still hadn’t grasped what the 26 mile trip actually meant in terms of experiencing the city. The route hasn’t changed much in two years. I start in the Clear Lake area (a relatively recent annexation into Houston proper). I get on what my wife and I call “8,” which is the outer beltway around the city (and is called the Sam Houston Tollway when there are tolls, and Beltway 8 when there aren’t. If this is confusing, don’t worry: it only matters if you live here), and after one exit, I proceed to the dreaded I-45.
45 generates such apprehension because it’s the main link between the city and Southeastern Houston. There’s a lot of commuting going on, and some stretches are almost always clogged (for example, when 45 intersects with 610, a.k.a, the inner beltway, a.k.a “the loop”). 45 can be hell, so this is why my wife and I tend to avoid it like the plague. Partially related: if all you know of Houston is what you see when you take 45 from the northernmost tip all the way to Galveston, you will have to conclude that you just saw the ugliest city in the United States. At best, the scenery is impressive when you come near the tall buildings in downtown Houston. But at no point you’re thinking “man, this looks gorgeous.”
Fortunately, Houston is much, much more than 45, and a lot of it is actually very pretty. For example, take the Allen Parkway, which is what I take when I leave 45, past downtown (or midtown, as I hear they call it. Which reminds me: by all means, native – or more experienced – Houstonians are more than welcome to correct me in anything I screw up here). The Allen Parkway is an attractive winding road that follows the Buffalo Bayou. It flows like the bayou itself, and inevitably turns into Kirby Drive at an intersection that has two mini Argonath-like pillars. At that point you know that you are entering the Realm of River Oaks.
It’s actually a very Houston thing to drive through an ugly highway full of car dealerships, chain restaurants and random billboards (I still remember the ones asking the local NFL team to keep Johnny Football within the state) and end up in the wealthiest community in all of Texas. Houston is a city of contrasts, and going into River Oaks definitely feels like entering a different city altogether. But that same feeling can be felt when you drive around Pasadena (you feel like you’re in Mexico), or parts of Bellaire (you’re transported to Asia). If you feel that much contrast when driving around Houston, it’s because this “city” is actually a conglomerate of very different communities. And when I use the word “different,” I mean very different, and in more ways than one.
With all of that being said, what is now called the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship is held in the River Oaks Country Club, and that is where I’ll be for the next nine days. I plan to attend the entire event, from qualies to the final. The main draw is strong, and the qualifying draw is simply fascinating. If you live in Houston and don’t have plans for this weekend, you might want go head over to the Realm: entry to the qualies is free of charge.
— Juan José Vallejo (@jjvallejoa) April 4, 2015
So many promising young players. So many veterans. Nine days in the Realm of River Oaks. This will be a lot of fun.