A Kiick Off the Old Block

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 /by

NEW YORK—For a 17-year old tennis player with a career-high ranking of No. 380, Alexandra Kiick has been living large. She flew first-class up to New York to play in the qualifying tournament, and had a private car pick her up at the airport and deposit her at the ritzy hotel on Central Park South, The Parker-Meridian.

“I must admit, I really enjoyed it. I was, like, ‘Yes! This is awesome,’” Kiick told me, with a smidgen of guilt in her voice, after she lost a tough first-round match to 25-year old Dia Evtimova, whose career-high ranking is No. 145.

Amateurs like Kiick can’t keep the prize-money they earn, but they’re invited to claim expenses against the sum. So why not live it up, especially when you have a pretty strong line of credit? First-round losers in qualifying earn $3,000, and Kiick is already in the main draw of the women’s doubles with a wild card, which guarantees her another $5,500. And Kiick did earn her wild card into qualifying, when she made the singles final of a recent USTA “Supernationals” tournament.

“It’s funny, but if I were a pro (which is what she aspires to) I would probably be staying with my family in New Jersey and they’d be driving me out here every day to save me money.”

That might have been problematic because the Kiicks are a competitive bunch, even if none of them ever swung a tennis racquet with any degree of skill—or interest. They’re football all the way, not least because Allie’s father, Jim Kiick, was an integral part of the legendary Miami Dolphins team that went undefeated in 1972 (he was the starting halfback). Jim played in three Super Bowls and enjoyed semi-legendary status as a free spirit and carouser.

The Kiicks are, however, dyed-in-the-wool New York Giants fans. As Allie Kiick said, “If you’re at their house during football season, you have to get out if you’re not a Giants fan. You seriously have to get out because you will get killed.”

When Allie stays with the Kiicks, the sports program gets fast and furious, whether it’s basketball or football or horseshoes. “It gets pretty intense,” she laughed. “It doesn’t take long for the elbows and stuff to start flying around.”

It’s hardly surprising that Allie would want to be a professional athlete, although she knows the perils. When she first began to compete, Jim was so unable to control his emotions while watching her play that he was eventually banished by Allie and her mom, Jim’s ex-wife, Mary Johnson.

“When Jim showed up at a tournament,” Mary Johnson once told me, every time he would moan or groan or go ‘aaaartgh’, Allie heard it. Some matches she even started talking to him, telling him to hush. Jim’s very intense, and one reason he and Alllie had so much trouble is because they’re kind of alike.”

But not all of the athletic legacy owes to Jim. When I asked Allie about that, her eyes widened and she said, “Oh no. My mom is unbelievable. She was a professional softball player. She was doing 60 push-ups when she was 12. Her dad used to bet with his friends on what she could do. The friends usually lost. Mom and I still work out together sometimes. She’s in Colorado now, and she hikes to the top of Aspen mountain every day. I tell her, ‘Mom, you’re ridiculous.’ She says, ‘Come out here and do it with me.’ ”

Mary and Jim Kiick divorced when Alexandra was six, and the former Mrs. Kiick has remarried. Alexandra’s stepfather is a doctor, and she says of him, “He’s the reason I’m here today. He’s paid for all the lessons.”

Allie has learned that it’s difficult to put all that learned experience to use on the court. Today, for example, she was up 4-2 in the first set and playing well. Poker-faced, she seemed cool and in control. She even wiped away a break point in the critical eighth game to hold her lead. But her Bulgarian opponent also held, and her go-for-broke style paid off in the next game when Kiick served for the first set.

Evtimova began to belt big forehands and stinging backhands. She hopped around with manic energy, and sat on changeovers with her legs twitching like a pair of tiny jackhammers. During points, she clenched her fist and volubly exhorted herself to “come on.” You could call her body language desperately positive.

In turn, Kiick remained calm. But her impressive composure began to morph into something more like timidity; her confidence seemed to drain away in the face of Evtimova’s bravado.

These days, where the premium is on aggression and even women players feel free to indulge in all sorts of intimidating behaviors—starting with the wild shriek when they make contact with the ball—the age difference between 17 and 25 can seem enormous. It certainly was partly responsible for the way Evtimova slashed her way through Kiick’s 10th service game to even the match at 5-all; Evitimova then held and broke Kiick at 15 again to take the set.

It was much the same in the second set, but with the lead reversed. Evtimova led 5-3, and had a match point. Kiick gamely fought back, and eventually broke her in that game. But after Kiick won the first point of her next service game, Evtimova swarmed all over her again, ripping off drive volleys and forehand winners to finish it, 7-5, 6-4.

When I mentioned that Allie seemed to lack self-belief at some key moments, she nodded and explained. “I do think I can win anything when I’m playing well. I have that confidence. But I have to get more mature in that aspect of it.

“A game like hers (Evtimova’s). . .  you’ll hit a good shot and she’ll just smack a winner and you’re like, ‘Gosh, this doesn’t happen.’ You can hit a great shot and she hits a better shot and then it’s like, ‘Okay, what now?’ Today, she was able to keep her head in the game better.”

Kiick will have to get accustomed to that level of bold and expressive playin order to realize her ambition to play pro tennis; it’s coin of the realm in the WTA these days. Right now, she’s at the very top of the recruiting list for colleges, and she is leaning toward attending school for at least a year.

“The bar is getting higher and higher,” she said. “You won’t find another 18-year-old who gets to the semis or wins the U.S. Open like they used to. These girls now are all a lot stronger, a lot more mature, and that had a lot to do with it today.”

Harold Solomon, who’s coaching Kiick again (she did a one-year stint with the USTA recently), knows that confidence is key to a counter-punching baseliner like his pupil. He’s also worked with Christina McHale, who plays a similar style but is a better, more natural mover than Allie.

When Allie wakes up from this pleasant dream of first-class air travel and mints on the pillow of a bed made each day by someone else, she’ll probably realize that a little more of that Kiick competitiveness might be a great asset, but let her enjoy this taste of luxury while it’s available. New Jersey will still be there when she turns pro.

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