Ever since he first picked up a racket, tennis has been a big part of Jesse Witten's life. From playing in high school and grade school, to becoming the only five-time All-American in Kentucky tennis history, to a professional career that began in 2005, Witten has never stopped loving the game.
Witten, now 29, rewrote the record book while at UK. He was the school's first-ever Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and advanced to the NCAA singles final in 2005. Success has followed at the professional level, where Witten has qualified for multiple major tournaments, including the 2009 U.S. Open. Witten advanced to the third round, eventually falling to current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
However, since realizing that an ascent to the top 20 in the world and therefore automatic qualification for events on the ATP Tour was not in the cards, Witten has consistently pondered what the future holds for him.
"It's always looming, to stop playing and do some other things," Witten said. "It's just a matter of time before I go that route."
Two years ago, before Witten qualified and made his run in that U.S. Open, imminent retirement was a very real possibility. The constant grind of traveling away from his home in Naples, Fla., had him wondering what was next. It was then that a couple wins and a hard-fought match against a world-class player re-energized him.
"It kept me going, it kept me going for the next two years," Witten said of his U.S. Open run in 2009. "It made it exciting again to have the opportunity because I didn't know if it was ever going to happen again."
What Witten had accomplished was his dream. For a player who has spent most of his time in the 100s and 200s of the ATP's rankings, qualifying for a tournament like the U.S. Open is a rare opportunity.
"It's what you play for," Witten said. "All of the players where I am, that's what they play for, to make that big tournament and make a big run. It just doesn't happen every day for us. We have a limited number of big tournaments where it can happen and it's really what we all play for. It was obviously exciting and it really fired me back up."
Although Witten had made that dream run, he still faced the daunting task of having to qualify for each future major. Witten, now ranked 290th in the world, has never fully abandoned thoughts of life after a professional career.
Between the travel and the long hours training, professional tennis is a lonely endeavor. Beginning last year, Witten had someone else to think about.
"This year it has gotten a little bit slower," Witten said. "I've kind of taken it easy and not played as many tournaments on the road because I got engaged in December. My fiancee moved down to Florida and I've tried to be home a little bit more than normal instead of being on the road 35 weeks a year."
With his marriage coming up in March of 2012, Witten is set to settle down and a playing career is incompatible with that. Ironically, the relationship that will play a role in ending his career began as a result of it: Witten met his future wife while playing at a tennis tournament.
His playing days may just be numbered, but that doesn't mean Witten will turn his back on the game. His first move toward making a future for himself has been work toward getting a tennis academy restarted in Naples that Witten attended as a teenager and that he credits with propelling him to his college and professional career.
With the success of his playing career, his marriage and his academy to consider, Witten is wary of spreading himself too thin. He will attempt to qualify for the upcoming U.S. Open, but he says that the end of the summer could spell the end of his playing days.
"Once I start this academy, I really want to put my effort into that so it's not a (half-hearted) job," Witten said. "You never know what's going to happen. I could have one big run in a tournament and all of a sudden want to play again. (But) now that I'm getting married, it might be the right time to put my time and energy into something else and just be able to be home.
"Being on the road and in a relationship, it's a tough life, but I've enjoyed it. I wish I could keep doing it but I'm starting to come to realize I might be ready for something else."
For now, Witten will continue to play. Other than trying to qualify for the U.S. Open, he is a member of the New York Sportimes of World TeamTennis, where he plays with John McEnroe and Martina Hingis. Last weekend in a tournament in Newport Beach, Calif., he faced off against one of the top players of all-time in Pete Sampras. Only recently has he become accustomed to playing and interacting with some of his former idols.
"I'm finally getting used to a little bit, playing at the tournaments and being around them, but it's still a bit of a shock," Witten said. "I practice every year with McEnroe and we have a pretty good relationship. We keep in touch. I never thought that would happen (with) one of the icons of the sport."
McEnroe is a role model for Witten and Witten jokes that his fiery on-court personality belies his true character.
"He's a good role model, he has good passion for the game and good attitude, other than what you see on the court," Witten said. "It's a great to be around those people and to play with them."
Ever since leaving Lexington, Witten has missed the team atmosphere of college tennis, specifically at UK, and that's why playing with World TeamTennis is such a pleasure for him.
"It brings me back to the college days," Witten said. "You have a team and it's not just you. Every other day of the year it's just you out there really."
Witten may have been a star as an individual, but he took pleasure in the feeling that he was just another member of the team.
"I probably mostly miss the team the most; practicing together, playing together and living together," Witten said. "We did everything as a team and we were close as friends and we still are today. I have a couple that are coming to coming to watch me play in different cities, so we keep in touch."
Witten's run the U.S. Open a couple years ago served as an unofficial reunion with his teammates and coaches. Chants of support for Witten, including "Go Big Blue," rang out from "Witten's Wall," the term coined for his section of supporters.
"It was great," Witten said. "It shows that they really care. There are some people that jump on and pretend they're fans, but they are people that actually care about your success no matter what happens."
Dennis Emery, UK's head tennis coach, figured prominently in his cheering section. The relationship between coach and player remains an important one to this day.
"He'll do anything for me," Witten said. "Whether I'm struggling, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter how I'm doing or how I'm feeling, he's going to try to help me as if I were his own son. It's a great relationship and it obviously made the choice of going to Kentucky the right one for me as I look back on it."
As he prepares to enter his next career as a coach and instructor, Witten knows that Emery will be an invaluable resource for him. He also knows that Emery won't hesitate to do anything he can.
"He's done ITF Juniors, he's done all kinds of events and charity work, he's done all kind of clinics and kids stuff," Witten said. "He really knows how to do everything. He's a good person to know if I have a question like, 'How should I set up this event?' or 'How should I run this drill or clinic?' He's a great person to have. He's been around the game and been around the game at a high level."
Witten also takes a great deal of pleasure in the ongoing success of his former coach and alma mater, particularly in UK's recent run to the Elite Eight this past season. Witten also singles out assistant coach Cedric Kauffmann as a major factor in the program's success. Kauffmann was a three-time All-American at UK just a few years before Witten arrived in Lexington.
"I always check in on their scores," Witten said. "I talk to Coach Emery when they have their big matches. I definitely follow it and I definitely watch it and I think it's great for him to have Cedric Kauffmann there. He's a great coach and an awesome guy. He helps with recruiting those guys and keeping it rolling."
Witten takes a great deal of pride in the program, though he is modest about the important role he played in building the foundation of UK tennis. Witten points to his predecessors, like Kauffmann and Carlos Drada, for paving the way for him.
"Even before I was there, they had Carlos Drada, who got to the NCAA finals as well, so he kind of led the way before me," Witten said. "I don't if I had much to do with it when I was there, but I'm glad we did well. I enjoy winning and I wish we could have won a little more, but I think we had a pretty good four years. I don't know what kind of mark I left but I'm still glad they're doing well and it's getting better."
Witten deflects talk of the legacy he built in Lexington, preferring to focus much more on the bonds he built while he was there. As his playing career creeps toward its conclusion, Witten will always look fondly back on sharing that U.S. Open with his UK family and what their presence said about those relationships.
"(Friends come and go) but these have stuck with me," Witten said. "There have been struggles, but they're always with me. It's great that we got to share that moment at the U.S. Open where we got to come back together and have a little fun."
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