As far as sports stories go, it’s tough to top the tale of a 55-year-old clinical psychologist getting a tryout for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets – and schooling some of the team’s high-salaried stars while there.
But for Rick Hughes, of Parker, Colorado, a chance to play in the US Open could mean the pinnacle of a long, intriguing athletic career. He’ll get that chance May 15-19 in Springfield, Missouri at the 2010 US Open National Playoffs Missouri Valley Sectional Qualifying Tournament.
“I saw that there was this opportunity to qualify for the US Open and I thought, ‘Hey, why not?” Hughes said. “I’ve always loved the game of tennis and I wanted to compete.”
A former college basketball player for George Washington University, Hughes achieved some notoriety in 2003 when he responded to an open tryout for the Denver Nuggets. At the time, he was living near Denver and working as a clinical psychologist. He showed up and – at age 55 – was the oldest player in attendance by roughly 30 years.
“Yeah, everyone looked at me like I was crazy,” he said. “Kiki Vandeweghe (the Nuggets general manager at the time) point-blank asked me why I was there. I got a lot of strange looks from people.”
While the tryout didn’t lead to an NBA roster spot, Hughes relished the chance to compete alongside such talented players.
“I obviously can’t move like I used to, but I can still shoot,” said Hughes, who stands 6-foot-6. “At one point, I think I hit 18-of-20 shots. I was never going to make the team, but I think it was a worthwhile experience. Several people told me that it had a positive affect on them to see me out there competing, and that was nice to hear.”
The NBA tryout isn’t the only unusual sports achievement held by Hughes. Shortly after college, Hughes signed a minor-league contract with baseball’s Texas Rangers as a pitcher, despite having not played organized baseball in high school or college.
After his college basketball career ended, he began “fooling around with a baseball” and joined an amateur baseball team in Springfield, where he lived. With a fastball reaching 98 mph, he was spotted by a Rangers scout and signed to a contract. Though he never reached the major leagues, he spent a few years in the minor and even had the opportunity to attend spring training with the team.
And now, at the age of 62, Hughes will return to Springfield to play for his chance at the US Open.
His tennis career could be described as unorthodox, but that would be par for the course for Hughes, it seems. He played casually with friends in high school and college, and eventually joined some leagues while living in Columbia, Missouri and Kansas City. Similar to his baseball experience, he’s never competed in an organized team setting.
After playing frequently in his 20s and 30s, Hughes began to play less, though his passion for tennis didn’t diminish.
“I watch tennis any time it’s on TV. I like seeing how the game has evolved over the past few decades,” he said. “As a tall guy myself, it’s fun to watch players like John Isner having success now. Tennis wasn’t a tall man’s game for so long and that’s changing.”
Hughes doesn’t have a particular measure for success in the US Open Qualifying, though he refuses to count himself out. He’s been training every day for the past several months and has seen a rapid improvement after some initial rust from his time off.
“I can’t hit the old nuclear serves that I used to,” he laughed. “But I’m going to get out there and compete. I hope I end up playing some young stud, just to see how I do.”
Hughes got his wish – his first-round match will come against 24-year-old Dalibor Pavic, a former all-conference player at Drake University who was ranked as high as No. 16 in the nation in doubles during his senior year.
Regardless of the outcome, Hughes is optimistic and excited about just having the chance to try to qualify for Flushing Meadows in August.
“I just want to have a positive impact on people and be an ambassador for this great sport,” he said. “It’s a game that can be played forever, and I want to show that to everyone.”