Allie Kiick has been through more in the past three years than many people will go through in a lifetime.
Two knee surgeries on her left knee. Two surgeries on her right knee. Mononucleosis. And cancer.
All before her 21st birthday.
“They were some of the worst experiences of my life,” Kiick said. “When the doctor broke the [cancer] news to me, I thought my world was crashing around me. As soon as he said what he said, I knew my percentages of coming back were low. It was hard, but it showed me a lot about myself and my character and that I can overcome things. I think we’re all a lot stronger than we think we are.”
Kiick was awarded one of eight wild cards into the 2017 US Open Qualifying Tournament by the USTA, offering her the chance to return to Flushing Meadows for the first time in three years. The last time she stepped foot on a court in the Big Apple for qualifying in 2014, she played just three games before injury forced her to retire.
But with a clean bill of health and a renewed sense of belief, the 22-year-old Florida native is back once again. And on Tuesday, Kiick outlasted Olga Ianchuk, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, in the first round of qualies to claim her first-ever US Open win.
“I feel fantastic. I did struggle with heat exhaustion, so to pull the win out was amazing,” Kiick said after her win. “When I won, I bent over. I had nothing left. And the emotions that were running through me, I can’t even describe it.
“I remember when I started feeling really bad, and I just had to tell myself to look back at everything I’ve been through. I knew the girl I played hasn’t been through what I have, so it gave me that extra boost to fight through it. To pull it out after everything that has happened to me, it was one of the best feelings in the world.”
Kiick’s run of bad luck began in late June 2014, when she retired in a first-set tiebreak against Susanne Celik in a $25,000 ITF Pro Circuit event in Kristinehamn, Sweden.
Kiick, once on the cusp of breaking into the Top 100 of the WTA rankings, was diagnosed with a bone bruise in her left knee and advised to take time off to give it a chance to heal. She returned to action at the US Open later that summer, but the issue persisted, and she was forced to retire against Paula Kania midway through the first set.
The American returned to the ITF circuit at the end of the year but played just two matches in 2015 before being diagnosed with mononucleosis three weeks before Indian Wells, where she had been given a wild card. Kiick played predominantly clay-court events over the spring and the summer, including at the USTA Pro Circuit event in Charlottesville, Va., where she defeated fellow American Katerina Stewart in the $50,000 final.
She earned a spot in the 2015 Wimbledon qualifying tournament, and things appeared to be looking up before tragedy struck once more. Same pain, same spot, different knee.
The daughter of former Miami Dolphins running back Jim Kiick, Allie was again diagnosed with a bone bruise, prompting the family to travel to Vail, Colo., to visit the Steadman Clinic, which specializes in Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery for a second opinion. An MRI did not show results consistent with a bone bruise, so they ended up scoping her right knee, inserting a small camera to get a better look inside the joint. When she returned to the clinic several weeks later and said her left knee had also been bothering her, they scoped that knee, too.
In both knees, they discovered holes that would need filling with cartilage from a cadaver. In both knees, the original ailment was misdiagnosed.
On Aug. 18, 2015, Kiick was preparing to play at the US Open. Most dates aren’t etched into a person’s memory, but Aug. 18 was different. That was the day a phone call turned her life upside down.
“I was showing up for swim practice, and I got a call from the doctor telling me to come in because a mole they punched came back as melanoma,” she said. “I didn’t hear a word he said after that. I called my mom in tears, just crying hysterically.”
Kiick remembers other dates, too. March 7, 2016, was her second right knee surgery, and June 28 later that summer was the second surgery on her left knee, just two days before her 21st birthday.
“When I found out about my knee and all the surgeries, I couldn’t figure out what I’d done to deserve it,” said Kiick, currently ranked No. 633. “My world was crashing around me, and I didn’t know how to react. There are so many worse things in the world than what I was going through, but when you’re in the position I was in, you think ‘Why me?’ I don’t want to seem like I was selfish, but I was. What did I do to deserve this?“
It has been a long road back for Kiick, who didn’t play a competitive match for 693 days between July 13, 2015, in Stockton, Calif., and June 5, 2017, in Bethany Beach, Del.
Prior to Tuesday’s match in New York, Kiick had played just 13 matches in almost two years.
“Everything that I’ve been through and what I’ve done to get back here motivates me,” Kiick said. “It’s been a lot. My life completely changed. I became normal. I went back to school, I got a job, I lived a normal life. To be back here and look back all those moments, my biggest stress was studying for my final exam, and now I’m stressed about my match at the Open.
“My coach, Kathy Rinaldi, has been there for me since Day 1, and I wouldn’t be back if it wasn’t for her. She believed in me when I failed to believe in myself. She welcomed me with open arms. The whole USTA did. They have been absolutely incredible. Being back on court, it’s all because of them.”
Kiick will consider this week at the US Open a success, regardless of what happens the rest of the tournament. Just being back on the court is a remarkable achievement. Now she’s two wins – she faces Japan’s Riko Sawayanagi on Thursday and potentially another American cancer survivor, Vicky Duval, in the final round of qualifying – from a potentially lucrative first-round match in the main draw.
A $50,000 guaranteed pay day for advancing through qualifying is one thing, but reaching her first Grand Slam main draw is something she’s not even allowing herself to dream about right now.
“It would mean the world to me,” she said. “It would make my career. I don’t even know how I would react. It would mean everything to me. To be back out here playing is more than I can ask for. I’ve learned to have patience. I’ve always been impatient, wanted things now. It’s tough on me sometimes because I feel like I’ve played my part of being patient the past two-and-a-half years, and I want this to be my time to succeed now."