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In a number of ways, Rico Gore is just like any other professional tennis player. The Prince George’s County resident has an International Tennis Federation (ITF) page listing his tournament results. He practices on the court for several hours a day. And throughout the year, Gore competes in tournaments around the United States and over the world in attempts to pick up ranking points.
But a quick glance at his ITF biography reveals that Gore is anything but typical. He is often the oldest player at any given tournament—his opponents, decades younger. Sometimes he struggles to win a single game against elite junior and collegiate players or pros who make a living through tennis. Gore started playing the sport at 24 and considers himself self-taught. In June, he turned 50.
For the past two decades, tennis at a professional level has consumed his life. Gore competes in the open division at United States Tennis Association tournaments, facing off against nationally ranked players and promising juniors, and at ITF Futures events, which is the lowest rung of men’s professional tennis. He has only nine wins spread over more than 80 ITF tournaments, all of them coming in the qualifying rounds. Gore knows he doesn’t have to subject himself to these losses. He chooses to anyway.
“The drive behind me doing it is I want the highest level of competition,” Gore says. “If I play in my age division, can I beat some guys? Sure, but it’s bigger than me getting some trophies … I love the game, [and] I want the highest level of competition.”
Tennis, Gore remembers thinking, looked easy. Growing up in the Atlanta area, he ran track, played basketball and football, and raced BMX dirt bikes. From 1987 to 1991, he was active duty in the Marine Corps. It wasn’t until 1993 that he decided to give tennis a try. After seeing a TV commercial featuring tennis champion Andre Agassi, Gore, then 24, turned to his girlfriend at the time and told her he wanted to play professional tennis.
She didn’t laugh him off the couch, Gore says, but instead encouraged his bold dream. She bought him his first tennis book and they flipped through the Yellow Pages for information on the sport.
“I’m one of those types of people who feel anything is possible if your mind can conceive it,” Gore says. “Now don’t get me wrong, there are physical limitations, but I never felt like there was a physical limitation, knock on wood. I had the use of both arms, both legs, was pretty healthy. Because I knew I had the physical ability, then my mind was like, if we learn this game, we can play it.”
Around this time, Gore met Devin McMickens and Avery Harwell, two local tennis players who were regular competitors at USTA tournaments. At first, Harwell didn’t know what to make of Gore. There would be occasions where Harwell wanted to hit with McMickens so he sent Gore to practice on another court. “We were already playing tournaments, and he was just getting his feet wet,” Harwell explains.
But it didn’t take long before Harwell wanted Gore on his side. The two played each other in a match that both remember lasting over three hours in 90-plus degree weather. Harwell won, but afterward the two ended up becoming practice partners.
“He had the motivation and the drive to get where he wanted to go,” says Harwell. “He wanted to turn pro. He wanted to travel. He was saying all of this stuff when he was coming up, just the sheer determination being around him. I mean, his life, I can say this, is separated by two things: tennis and all that other stuff. That’s it. That’s his passion. And he’s been playing the open [division] for so long. I said, ‘When are you going to be playing senior division?’ He said, ‘I’m not ready for that.’”
Just two years after picking up the sport, Gore played in the qualifying round of the local professional tennis tournament, then known as the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. He had written a letter to the tournament director saying that he wanted to “represent D.C. and keep the trophy in D.C.” Upon reflection, Gore calls the letter “kind of cheesy” and says he didn’t expect to get in, but he ended up receiving a wild card into the tournament. When he saw his name on the draw sheet, Gore says he almost passed out.
He had a bye in the first round but faced touring professional Kenny Thorne, once ranked as high as No. 121 in the world, in the second and final round of qualifying. Gore lost 6-0, 6-0 in under an hour. The defeat only strengthened his professional aspirations.
“It just made me hungrier,” Gore says. “I was like, ‘Gosh man, how did this guy beat me so bad? … It just fueled me even more, because it felt good to be out there, see my name in the lights. It was a feeling I wanted more of.”
From 2000 until earlier this year, Gore worked at the American Chemical Society, a nonprofit in D.C., most recently as a project manager. (Gore says he resigned in April to deal with ongoing family issues but declined to elaborate further.) Alicia Harris, Gore’s friend and former colleague, remembers him as being reserved at work and very “meticulous about his leave” and vacation days.
“We have two national meetings a year,” Harris says. “Most people take off when they get home from travel. He was always in the office, because he had to save his leave for tennis.”
Gore says that he spent “98 percent of his leave days” for tennis and envisioned that one day he would advance so far into a tournament that he would be forced to take more time away from work. While that never happened, Gore has had the opportunity to visit over a dozen countries through tennis. This September, he plans to play in Nigeria.
McMickens, who now serves as Gore’s hitting partner and coach, doesn’t believe many people his age could handle Gore’s lifestyle. Few local tennis players in their 50s are traveling thousands of miles to another country only to be sent home by an opponent more than half their age.
“It’s very rare, because at this point in our age, we’re either married or focused on career,” says McMickens, who is 57. “Not saying he’s not, but his dream is to get a [national] ranking, and so a lot of other people, they’ve stopped playing tennis, or are playing more recreationally. It’s very rare.”
Gore, currently ranked second in the USTA Mid-Atlantic’s open division, has no intention to stop or to play in age group tournaments any time soon. At ITF events, he says, opponents have come up to tell him they admire what he’s doing.
“I’m all in on tennis,” Gore says. “As far as the job stuff, because of [family issues] I’m dealing with, I’m not even thinking about that. Tennis is my out. It keeps me calm. I go [there] to relieve stress … and now with a little more time to play, I can dedicate more time to the game, which is a good thing.”