By Wendy Nielsen, Intermountain Tennis Association
When you have been a volunteer with the USTA for over three decades, it becomes difficult to name your favorite leadership position. Allen Kiel, USTA-Intermountain’s current representative on the prestigious National Nominating Committee, paused to reflect.
"You know, it’s been my privilege over the years to serve in so many capacities, with so many talented people, I can’t say that I have a favorite. They have all been very challenging roles, rewarding in their own ways."
But when pushed, the dedicated Denver businessman and lifelong tennis advocate admits he is most proud of his efforts in diversity and inclusion outreach.
In past years, Kiel has served on so many USTA national committees, it becomes daunting just to list them all: He has served on the USTA Marketing Committee; he has served on the National Nominating Committee twice and on the Strategic Planning Committee three times; he has served on the Executive Committee, first as a Delegate from Intermountain Tennis Association, then as a Presidential Appointment (during his tenure as President of ITA in 1993-94); he was chairman of the Junior Task Force that restructured the USTA pathway for junior programs; and, for the past six years, Allen has also led a Minority Task Force that has paved the way for substantial inclusion of minorities in USTA programs, volunteer appointments and jobs.
"In the early 1990s, diversity funding was not even on the National radar," Kiel explained. "Within a couple of years, we took multicultural programming from ‘no priority’ status, to the No. 1 priority at USTA National. That feels pretty good."
"If there is anyone in Intermountain who has done more for promoting and advancing the goal to bring minorities into the USTA (than Allen), I haven't met them," said Frank Adams, delegate for USTA -Intermountain and Vice Chairman of the USTA Adaptive Tennis Committee. "Allen is responsible for keeping alive Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell's National Junior Tennis League Program. He established the first grants that the ITA gave to minority tennis programs and players. At the time, it was a bold move and very controversial. But ultimately it proved to be the one single act that convinced people that the Intermountain Tennis Association is dedicated to inclusion and diversity."
From 1997-2002, Kiel also took the lead in the creation of what is now known as the USTA Learning and Leadership Development Committee (formerly the Human Resources Committee, then the SERV Committee). Kiel says that the six years he served as the chairman of the Learning and Leadership Committee were another personal highlight. Under Kiel’s leadership, USTA University, the national entity which oversees all of the training of USTA volunteers and staff, was also created.
"Allen’s contributions within the USTA are immeasurable and he is a tremendous resource for our Section," said ITA Executive Director Matthew Warren. "Not only is he well-networked, but he also has the respect of the key National leaders, which is evidenced by his serving on the most important committees, including his current appointment to the National Nominating Committee."
Other notable appointments came when Kiel was chairperson of the USTA National Junior Tennis League in 1995-96 and chairperson of the Davis Cup Committee from 2003-04. He was vice president of USTA Colorado as well as president of the Colorado Youth Tennis Foundation (CYTF) for two terms.
"While he has several key positions at the USTA National level, Allen remains very connected to our District’s operations and programs as well as CYTF efforts," said Fritz Garger, current executive director of USTA-Colorado and CYTF. "We are extremely proud and fortunate to have him residing in our District and Section."
Surprisingly, Kiel’s love of tennis began on his high school basketball court, on a rainy afternoon in his hometown of Chicago.
"It was raining the first day of baseball practice," Kiel explained. "My friends were all inside the gymnasium hitting tennis balls against the wall. So I started hitting with them. The high school tennis coach happened through the gym and asked me how long I’d been playing tennis. I said, ‘about three minutes!’ I played my first high school match in a gym outfit with a borrowed tennis racquet."
Tennis took hold of the naturally athletic all-star, and Kiel never looked back. Armed with numerous scholarship opportunities, Allen was the first member of his family to attend college, ultimately competing for two years on the tennis team at DePaul University, and then finishing his collegiate career at the University of Northern Colorado, where he remained undefeated in conference play. In 1967, Kiel’s DePaul team placed fifth in the College NCAAs, helping solidify Kiel’s membership in the DePaul University Sports Hall of Fame.
"In those days, you either went to college or you went to Vietnam," Kiel said. "You have to understand, I grew up in a very poor home. Tennis was opening doors for me that I never could have dreamed. When I was 19, I decided I needed to get away from Chicago so I took the offers I had to play college tennis and I plotted them all out on a map of the United States. I picked the scholarship offer furthest from Chicago and started hitchhiking."
After college, Kiel became certified as a US Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) teaching professional and moved back to Chicago where he developed, owned and operated several indoor tennis/athletic clubs. Two days before he opened his first Chicago club (Oak Lawn), he married his college sweetheart, Michele. Although Michele prefers gardening to tennis, she was instrumental in helping Allen run the Chicago clubs and has been by his side ever since. They will celebrate their 40-year wedding anniversary at the finals of the US Open this September.
"Back in those days, we had 700 people a week taking lessons with just three pros," Kiel explained. "Tennis was taking off! A lot of bowling alleys would convert their parking lots to tennis courts so we’d have people showing up saying ‘What lane am I on?’ We’d charge $1.50 per lesson for a group of 12 beginners; then we would create a 12-person league with the students after the third lesson. They didn’t care too much about winning, they just wanted to play."
One of Allen’s students who did care about winning was former World No. 2 professional tennis player, Andrea Jaeger. Jaeger’s brief but highly successful tennis career ended prematurely due to shoulder injuries, but not before she reached the singles finals of several majors during the early-1980s.
"I had the privilege to work with Andrea when she was young. But, I learned more from her than she did from me. Andrea was a driven tennis player then, and now is a driven volunteer. She is in the Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame for her great volunteer work with children."
Another notable highlight of Kiel’s remarkable career would come in the mid-70s when he and George Basco, Tim Heckler and Jack Barnaby co-wrote the first USPTA certification test. In 1974, Kiel was also one of seven USPTA professionals who helped develop and pilot a league rating system, known today as National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP), used for all USTA league play.
Eventually, Kiel says a "mid-life crisis" at age 29 brought him and Michele back to her home state of Colorado, when they decided they were ready to raise a family.
"I bought my first suit and got into commercial real estate," he said. "I took a break from tennis for a little while."
But it wasn’t too long until Allen started getting involved as a local and national volunteer.
Ongoing service with Colorado community tennis associations, and with both the Colorado District and Intermountain Section associations would lead Kiel to multiple award, including the Colorado Tennis Association’s "Bob Robineau Service Award," Intermountain Tennis Association’s "David Freed Lifetime Service Award," and induction into the Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame. While president of USTA Intermountain, Kiel was also a leader in the creation and implementation of Touch Tone Tennis, the predecessor of TennisLink, which revolutionized the way players registered for USTA leagues and tournaments.
"Allen truly cares about people and about tennis," Garger added. "He is a staunch supporter of making sure the USTA’s efforts (at every level) are ‘inclusive’ so the sport is open and accessible to all. His role, along these lines in particular, cannot be understated. He is a champion of the typically underserved populations and a stalwart for inclusivity."