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Keeping his day job: Witten's U.S. Open run revives professional career

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Jesse_Witten_WTT_2007_-_1_(Camerawork_USA).jpgBy Sara Reichbaum

For a player that had put together such an illustrious and wildly successful career at Kentucky, it seemed crazy to think that Jesse Witten was contemplating an early retirement.

As a former NCAA singles finalist and quite arguably the most successful player in Kentucky tennis history, Witten seemed a lock to burst onto the professional tennis scene. Only he didn't. Instead of continuing his collegiate success onto the pro stage, Witten hit a wall.

For years, he bounced around in Challenger Series tournaments, making at most a couple of thousand dollars a weekend if he did well. It wasn't chump change by any means, but it wasn't the type of success Witten had the potential to make.

"A couple of months ago I was kind of thinking I was done with tennis and was going to take another role in life but I guess it is changing a little bit and I have to stick with the tennis," Witten said.

After toppling two top 100 players and taking the world's No. 4 player, Novak Djokovic, down to the wire in a four-set thriller at last week's U.S. Open, where Witten won his first career Grand Slam matches, there is no reason for Witten to quit his day job anytime soon.

"I wasn't ready for a real job anyway," Witten said. "I scared myself into playing well."

The qualifying round of the U.S. Open was just a "mini goal" Witten had set for himself after a year plagued with injury. It turned into much more than that despite Witten's doubts that he even belonged on the big stage.

"Before I just didn't believe I belonged there," Witten said. "Everybody says whether you're good or not and a lot of people expected things from me a while back. People can tell you you're good all they want but whether or not it turns into something is all on me."

Witten had always worked hard. He was a four-time All-America selection in college, reached a career-high ranking of 171 in the pros (he's expected to make a giant leap after his run last week) and had even made it to the U.S. Open one time before. But the difference this time was that after four years of being a professional player and only two ATP Challenger titles, Witten was even further under the radar.

"I had no pressure on me," Witten said. "No one really expected anything from me when the tournament started. Probably no one even mentioned my name. I went into the matches with no pressure, no expectations and I just played loose."

Despite his self-proclaimed anonymity among the pros, there was a section of the crowd who knew Witten very well. They had seen his ups and downs, even followed him to a few of the challenger events he played.

Kentucky blue clad family members, former teammates and former Kentucky head coach Dennis Emery were deemed the "Witten Wall" by the media. The Wall led the fans in Louis Armstrong Stadium in J-Dub and Jesse Witten chants. One could even hear the classic C-A-T-S cheer on an ESPN broadcast.

"They were cheering me on, every point," Witten said. "If times were getting tough, I could always look up at them and they would be there cheering and rooting me on. They looked intense. I knew they were into it; I knew they believed I could win. It was electric. They made it worth playing."

They knew he could win because they watched him develop as a player ever since he started at the age of 6. Witten had experienced the strenuous travel schedule of the USTA junior circuit and opted out of the 30-week travel life of a professional for a college degree.

Witten credits the University of Kentucky tennis program and athletic staff with turning him into an actual tennis player.

"Before I got to college I was just an 18-year-old kid who didn't know what I was doing," Witten said. "I was playing tennis but I wasn't really a tennis player."

The top players Witten faced for four years while being immersed in the ever competitive Southeastern Conference helped add to his résumé. If going back to college was an option, Witten openly admits he would take it in a heartbeat.

 Now that Witten is in the professional tennis world, he has other individuals looking out for him and willing to lend a helping hand - tennis icon John McEnroe to be exact. Witten and McEnroe have played team tennis together for three years now with the New York Sportimes. McEnroe has become a mentor of sorts to Witten.

"I think he likes me," Witten said. "He doesn't yell at me."

One would have to assume that an invitation to train and gain invaluable knowledge from a tennis legend would mean they like you. Witten said it was obvious he would take McEnroe up on the offer and that it would be dumb of him not to.

"He is just so wise when it comes to tennis and life with tennis," Witten said. "He's done everything. Been there done that, every little thing to do with tennis. It's not like there is anything he hasn't seen so it helps that he can show me the ropes a little bit."

New doors have opened for Witten and his career seems to be just beginning now instead of heading towards its end. Although the rest of this year has already been planned out for Witten, next year is a clean slate.

Just weeks ago, the 2010 Australian Open, which marks the first of the four Grand Slam tournaments, was going to mark the end of Witten's career in tennis. Now it marks the beginning.

"I was planning on going just one more year before this all happened," Witten said. "I was going to try and play the qualifier and give Australia one more shot. I figured I would only go one more time but now there is kind of a new opening. Hopefully I can not only go, but win some matches, get some good points and move up the rankings. We will see what happens."

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