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Florida's Witten Thrust Into Spotlight at US Open

August 31, 2009 07:00 PM
By Rick Vach, USTA Florida

At 26 years of age, Jesse Witten of Naples may be a little late for the "Where is the next American champion?" discussion, but you couldn't tell from his rock-solid backhand, blistering forehand and wide smile on Tuesday after a straight-set dismantling of No. 29 seed Igor Andreev of Russia at the US Open.

How does a five-year pro get his first big win in professional tennis on the world's biggest stage?

"Actually, I don't know," said the smiling Witten.

Since graduating from the University of Kentucky where he was an NCAA Championship finalist, the Florida born and bred player has battled in the minor leagues of tennis, winning titles at the ITF Futures level and playing Challengers, but never until this week winning an ATP-level match, much less recording a victory at a Grand Slam.

"I think it was good because it prepared me by playing a lot of matches. At the lower levels you just play so many matches, and the guys aren't terrible," said Witten, who qualified into the main draw at the US Open. "You hit a lot of balls, and the depth of men's tennis is pretty ridiculous. There are always guys ranked three, four hundred that are beating guys in the Top 100. Even though they sound like small, weak tournaments they are tough, so it kind of prepared me."

He chose Kentucky as he had played junior tennis with the head coach's son, and had a number of relatives in the area. Upon graduation with a degree in kinesiology, he decided to give the pro tour a go with some fortuitous financial backing.

"I've had two guys in Naples who I've known growing up who loved tennis, they've just helped out with expenses and travel, which made it very easy," said Witten, who by contrast starting this year paying his own way. "But it almost got to where I took advantage of it, I felt like I wasn't working as hard. I don't know if that's made the difference this year, but I'm traveling on my own dollar and everything counts. You really pay attention to things a little bit more."

In the days leading up to the US Open starting, Witten received some mentoring from an unexpected source -- tennis legend and US Open commentator John McEnroe.

"I always do the [World] TeamTennis here, I play for the New York team, which is always fun," Witten said. "I hit with John McEnroe the other day, and he was really being helpful. He's on my TeamTennis team, as well. We've gotten closer over the last five or six years. He was trying to give me pointers, helping me out. He usually doesn't say too much when it comes to somebody else's game or coaching like that. That meant a lot, just to know that -- and he called me after I qualified, you know. So I mean, just for him to take the time out of their busy schedule, which I know is busy, I mean, it means a lot to you."

Witten started his trek around the world, slogging through the minor leagues of professional tennis, after earlier turning down sponsorship and training offers following some immediate success in college.

"After the first year I got to the [NCAA] finals, my first year, and they were kind of strong on that one," said Witten on receiving offers from numerous organizations to leave college and join the pro tour. "They offered me a coach and offered me some help and expenses to play and travel, but I just -- I loved college too much. I didn't want to let the team down. Just had too much fun, and I was playing well, and I wanted to finish out and get my degree because you never know what's going to happen with tennis. One ankle injury, you're done."

Witten says he would recommend the college experience to any player struggling with the decision to go pro.

"I'd go back to college right now if I could," Witten laughed. "I loved college and everything about it. I feel like the team aspect of it is great. I love having the team, having friends that you live with and play and practice and do everything together. It's just a great atmosphere. I got a lot better at college. I had a lot of offers to kind of bypass college and go right into playing and traveling, but I didn't want to do that 30-some weeks a year. I mean, I was 18 or 17, whatever. I just -- it wasn't me. So I kind of just stuck in, graduated, and went that path. I'm glad I did."

When his tennis adventures are over he can always fall back on his kinesiology degree, which he says has benefited him over the years as he's pushed his body to maintain a pro tennis fitness level.

"It's a lot of exercise science, basically," Witten says. "So if you're getting injured, and you know how the body is working, and what you need to do if you're getting fatigued, and stuff like that, it's a broad spectrum. It's great for athletes because it kind of shows and teaches you what's going on with your body when you're playing sports at a high level."

Witten's $31,000 paycheck thus far at the US Open, more than he had earned through the first eight months of the year, and the subsequent ranking points will enable him to later this year become a mainstay on the Challenger circuit. This in contrast to the lowest-rung ITF Futures events where he started the year, and he can now pursue his goal of cracking the Top 150 for the first time.

Finishing off Andreev on Court 7 at the US Open on Tuesday, the permanent stands on one side were filled to capacity, while the standing-only side on the opposite side of the court was 12 deep with fans screaming for the American underdog.

"I wasn't sure if it was worth it, especially on my own dime," said Witten of playing again in 2009, after injuries in 2008 left him ranked around No. 500 on the ATP Rankings. Now at 26 years old, middle-aged by pro tennis standards, the fully-fit, optimistic Witten doesn't expect to be included in the "next great U.S. player" conversation, but says is both ready and excited about a second chance at seeing his hard work come to fruition.

And if his breakout run continues on the biggest stage of American tennis at the US Open? "I think I could handle that," he says with a smile.






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