Jesse Witten can afford to extend his reservation at the Waldorf-Astoria for at least a few more nights, a heck of an accomplishment for a26-year-old journeyman from Naples who earlier this year was shacking up at private homes in places like Mansfield, Texas, playing in obscure tournaments in the hopes of a $1,200 paycheck.
On Thursday, Witten, the 276th-ranked player in the world, reached the third round of the U.S. Open with a 6-7 (7-3), 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 victory over Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina. His prize for winning the match? $48,000.
“I’m trying to prove to some people I can play a little bit,” said Witten, who graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2005 with a degree in kinesiology. “It’s been a long time, and a lot of guys doubted me, so it’s nice.”
Earlier this year, Witten considered retiring. His sponsor, a Naples software company, dropped him. Last week, he wondered if he would make enough to cover the Waldorf bill.
“I was playing in a lot of little places that you don’t get any recognition, no ball kids, it’s tough,” he said. “You just have to go out there and put the time in and get through it so you can get to here.”
He said in some ways, playing at the U.S. Open was easier than the third-tier events.
“You have fans and something to play for,” he said. “When you’re out there [on the Futures tour], there are a couple of people watching, and it’s all on you. You have to motivate yourself to get through it, even though you don’t want to be there.
“Here, I have fans. You have a big setting. You have people that love tennis, and it definitely makes it easier, and you get amped up to play.”