A Super Bowl of Her Own
One of the more encouraging developments for U.S. tennis in recent weeks was the American sweep of the girls 18- and 16-and-under titles at the Orange Bowl, a junior event that ranks right up there with the Grand Slam youth tournaments as an indicator for future success. Lauren Davis won the 18s, and Allie Kiick won the 16s. Both defeated fellow Americans in their finals.
The 18s title isn't what it used to be, at least not on the women's side, either at the Orange Bowl or the majors. Many girls of that age, and almost all the ones destined to be Grand Slam winners, usually by-pass the oldest age division in favor of on-the-job training on the WTA tour. But the 16s is a different story. Only the true prodigies—the Steffi Grafs, Jenniifer Capriatis and Monica Seleses—abandon their junior career before they turn 16. And in the case of this year's winner, the further good news is that Allie Kiick is just 15.
That surname should be familiar to NFL football fans. For those over 50, "Jim Kiick" is a household name. Allie's father was a halfback (a runner) with the Miami Dolphins. He played in three Super Bowls, two of them wins by the Dolphins. And he played a vital role the year the Dolphins finished the season undefeated (17-0)—the only NFL team ever to do so.
But Kiick was equally well-known for his free-spirited, often irreverent ways. In a marvelous bit of self-effacing honesty, he described his specialty as "the one-yard gallop." Together with Larry Csonka, his Dolphin backfield mate, Kiick also blazed a trail through the bars of Miami and most other NFL cities as memorable as the one the pair cut in the NFL record book. They were ultimately dubbed "Butch Cassidy (Kiick) and the Sundance Kid," after the wildly popular Robert Redford/Paul Newman western featuring a comparably larger-than-life, lovable pair of outlaws.
So I decided the catch up with the Kiicks after Allie won, to learn a little bit about how the daughter of the nominal "Butch Cassidy" ended up playing tennis. I learned that hers is a mirror-image of an oft-told tale, the one in which a talented tennis player decides that he or she would rather enjoy the fruits offered by a more popular, mainstream team sport.
Allie's mother, Mary Johnson (she and Jim Kiick have been amicably divorced for about a decade; Allie took up tennis after the split) told me: "When Allie was in nursery school, at about 3, her teachers came and asked me if it was okay if Allie played with the kindergarten kids instead of the other pre-ks. Her speed, footwork, and eye-hand co-ordination even then were outstanding."
The youngster soon discovered soccer, where she was immediately a star. The day before her team was to play a game Mary described as a kind of "Super Bowl" of the local soccer league, Allie broke her ankle while rough-housing with her older brother, Austin (who's now 21, and a fine if not NFL-grade football player). She ran inside and hid in the closet for a few hours, finally limping out into the living room. When Mary and Allie showed up for the big game the following day, Allie's soccer coach, not knowing the state of her ankle, called out, "Here comes the team!"
It turns out that Allie didn't like the pressure of being the team star. As she told Mary, she was tired of the coach encouraging her to "go out and get us a goal." By then, the age of 8, she'd also become friendly with a girl who was a competitive diver, and Allie decided that individual sports were more appealing. She declared she was interested in playing tennis. "The next day, we went to Wal-Mart to get her a tennis racket," Mary told me. "I picked out a cute Minnie Mouse one, but Allie rejected that. She didn't want Minnie, she wanted Mickey."
The rest is a familiar story—one of countless hours spent on practice court, and a snowballing desire fueled by noteworthy success. Jim told me that Allie won the Florida 10-and under state championship not long after she started playing. Since then, she's continued to improve, and has come under the wing of the USTA development program as well as her now-official coach, Harold Solomon (a former Top 10 player and that American rarity, a clay-court grinder).
Allie attributes a good portion of her recent success at the Orange Bowl (where she was in as a wild card) to working with Solomon. He's improved her serve, and his belief in her has morphed into self-belief in Allie. But the 15-year old has an even simpler appreciation for why she feels so comfortable with Solomon. "He's funny," she said. "I really like that he can be funny and not all serious all the time."
It's a slightly different story with Allie's celebrated dad, who's always had trouble restraining his intense competitiveness. A man accustomed to the trash-talk, exhortations, guttural exclamations and the general mayhem of the football field, Kiick had an enormous amount of trouble understanding and embracing the tennis sensibility. Seeing his little girl out there, all alone, made him want to jump in. And when he couldn't, he would show—and express—his frustration with how thing were going.
"He moves around a lot," Mary said of her former husband. "He's up and down the sideline, and he makes noise. Allie would see and hear him and get mad herself. Some matches, she's get into an actual conversation with him, trying to get him to hush. She finally told him she didn't want him anywhere near her matches. He's very intense. Actually, they're very much alike, which is one reason they've had trouble getting together."
"It's gotten better," Jim told me. "I can cringe, but not show anything, at least not vocally. That's turned out pretty good. Actually, we're both better at handling it, mentally."
It's been a long road though, only recently ended. At the start of the Orange Bowl, Jim was distinctly not invited to watch Allie. He tracked her results round-by-round. Shortly before the final, Allie called him and said, "Dad, I want you to come."
So Jim attended the final, which is played in the same Crandon Park stadium in Key Biscayne where they play the finals of the big combined pro event every spring. The sheer size of the place gave Jim cover. "I hid in the corner, I tried to blend in. It's tough for me, because I come from a different sport, and when something big happens I want to yell, "yeaaaah! Go-o-o-o- . . ." You can't do that in tennis and sometimes that's difficult to remember."
Jim did a pretty good job restraining himself (although he still hasn't mastered that tennis tradition he describes as the "slow clap," which I take to mean polite applause). But he was still tied up in knots at times, feeling for Allie, understanding that in comparable moments in his career, he had 10 other guys on the field with whom to share the emotions (with no restraints), the work, the blame, the joy.
Allie lost the first set of the final to Catherine Harrison, a Tennessee girl, 5-7. But she rebounded to win going away, 6-2, 6-0.
"This was more meaningful for me than winning the Super Bowl, and I mean that," Jim told the Miami Herald shortly after the match. "To see your daughter alone out there, and fighting back to win the Super Bowl of junior tennis at 15 is a magnificent thing. I have goose bumps."
Four days later, when I spoke with Jim, he said he still felt numb. I wasn't sure if it was because of Allie's win or the effects of visiting every bar owned by a friend (and you can imagine that legion) to share his joy. It hardly mattered, either cause would be consistent with the nature and reputation of Butch Cassidy.
*Photo credit to Michael Baz.