Jesse Witten wasn't intimidated by his opponent or the setting.
But he couldn't beat No. 4 Novak Djokovic. Witten was up 30-0 on Djokovic's serve, tied 4-4 in the fourth set, but Djokovic pulled out the game, then broke Witten to take a 5-4 lead. Witten won the first two points again on Djokovic's serve, but Djokovic came back to close out the match, 6-4, in four sets.
Witten got a standing ovation and gestured to the crowd as he walked off the court.
Witten had a chance to serve for the third set, but couldn't pull it off. He double-faulted on a break point, and Witten and played a tiebreak for the third set. Then Djokovic crushed him, 7-2, in the tiebreak to take a 2-1 set lead.
Witten fell down two breaks and 3-0 in the second set, but has battled all the way back, breaking Djokovic for a second time in the sixth game to tie the set at 3-all. He lost on his serve again, though, Djokovic held, then broke Witten again to win the set and even the match, 6-3.
Witten, 26, took the first set from Djokovic in Louis Armstrong Stadium in the third round of the U.S. Open. Witten broke Djokovic to take a 6-5 lead and had a chance to serve for the set, but fell behind 40-0 and lost to drop into a tiebreak. But Witten bounced back, breaking Djokovic on the first point, and taking a 3-0 lead. Djokovic closed to 3-2, but Witten took the next four points for the set.
Jesse Witten went from just trying to get in the U.S. Open, to being one of the stories of the first week.
The 26-year-old Lely High School graduate started qualifying almost two weeks ago. Today at 11 a.m., he’ll play No. 4 seed Novak Djokovic in Louis Armstrong Stadium in the third round of singles. And he’s got 30 friends and family — including his mom and sister — staying in New York ready to come out and cheer on “J-Dub.”
“The whole thing is pretty memorable,” Witten said Thursday when asked what the main highlight has been so far. “Coming from qualifying 13 days ago, with just the hope of winning one qualifying match ....”
Witten, a five-time All-American at Kentucky, won his final qualifying match a week ago to get in the Open for the second time in four years.
In 2006, he was bounced in the first round by Paul Goldstein. On Monday, he whipped No. 29 seed Igor Andreev of Russia, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 for his first ATP win. Wednesday, he outlasted Argentina’s Maximo Gonzalez, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2.
Witten had to deal with Gonzalez taking a couple of extended bathroom breaks, as well as a visit from the trainer.
“You’ve just kind of got to roll with the punches,” he said.
As Witten started to take control of the match, the small fan base that had been cheering him on started to grow.
“It’s pretty exciting to have that many people,” he said. “It makes me think I’m playing for a reason.”
After his upset of Andreev, Witten was asked what was different, considering his lack of success. He said he wasn’t sure.
“Whatever’s working is working,” Witten said Thursday. “If I don’t have to figure it out, why try to figure it out? Really, I’m just playing a little smarter. I’m getting a little more mature, using all of the things I’ve picked up.”
That includes pointers from none other than John McEnroe, who’s on Witten’s World TeamTennis team. They’ve played doubles competitively and practiced together. McEnroe made sure he sought out Witten after the win over Gonzalez.
“It was kind of cool to see him excited about somebody else’s tennis,” Witten said. “I’m not a big name or anything.”
But Witten’s name is getting bigger. He spent some time on the ESPN2 set Wednesday with Naples resident Mary Carillo and Chris Fowler of ESPN, chatting about his run. Witten was a bit surprised at how well they knew his background.
“It kind of makes you feel a little special,” he said.
And, Witten admitted, a little satisfied going into his match with Djokovic.
“Everything’s kind of a bonus,” he said. “From the first round of qualifying on, you don’t expect much.”
If Witten plays like he has the first two rounds and gets the crowd behind him, Djokovic might be the one getting more than he expects today.
Djokovic had some issues with a heckler earlier in the tournament.
“It kind of got to him,” Witten said. “I think that bodes well for my rowdy little fan base.”