Former UK tennis star Jesse Witten balancing love of competing with coaching

ngray@herald-leader.comJuly 22, 2014 

Former UK tennis player Jesse Witten beat Erik Crepaldi of Italy 6-4, 3-6, 6-0 in a first-round match in the Kentucky Bank Championships at UK.

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  • Kentucky Bank Championships

    What: $100,000 pro USTA tournament

    When: Through Sunday

    Where: UK's Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex

    Tickets: $10 daily, or weeklong passes $50

    Wednesday's schedule: Men's and women's main draw begins at 10 a.m.; Big Blue Night Exhibition,

    7:30 p.m.

Former UK tennis All-American Jesse Witten sat down 30 minutes before his match at the Kentucky Bank Tennis Championships on Tuesday, his body drenched in sweat in the humid July heat as if he had already powered through a four-hour tennis marathon. He had only warmed up.

Witten took out three rackets and colored in a red "W" in the middle of the netting on both sides with a paint stick, wiping his face of sweat with his left hand in ten-second intervals.

"This is for Wilson," Witten said about one of his sponsors. "I don't need many (sponsors) anymore because I don't do much."

Such is the life of a former collegiate tennis star who is 31 and on the tail end of a professional career that netted him over $380,000 in prize money and trips to three of the four Grand Slam championships.

When he competed regularly and relied on professional tennis for income, sponsors were his way of staying ahead financially and mentally ahead of similar competition. Whereas most tennis player's bodies break down when they reach their 30s, Witten's mind decided it had enough.

"It was never my body," he said. "I always loved competing and I always loved playing, but it was always expensive to be out there. If you're not out there winning and winning a lot, it'll cost you. And it plays tricks on your mind."

Witten pushed into the top 200 of the world tennis rankings in 2006 and 2009 as he swung around the country and the world for ATP and ITF events.

"You have to win this match to eat, live and make it to another week," he said. "(It's) not always that extreme, but it does happen. You play 40 or 45 weeks out of the year and it wears down on you."

Now Witten spends the majority of his time as a tennis instructor at Tough Tennis Academy in Naples, Fla., where he grew up and went to high school. He mentors rising high school players as well as young pros, preparing them for a career path he has already trekked down.

"Just because you work doesn't mean it's going to be given to you," Witten said he tells his young players. "I push kids to go to college because I loved that time in my life. I say that because you grow mentally and physically as a person in college, whereas you would go play on a tour where you may not stay at in a couple years."

Witten is proof that college benefits. He was a five-time All-American (four as a singles player and one in doubles) at UK, the first player to earn that distinction. He reached the NCAA Championship final as a freshman in 2002.

"The lifespan of a tennis player is shorter than the average athlete," Witten said. "Not to say that we're old, but you make choices when your body starts to tell you something."

Witten said of the difference between coaching and competing: "I'm hitting with kids in training, and I have pretty good kids but it's nothing like playing with the pros. It's a great thing to be able to compete. Winning is in the competing and having fun."

Witten is competing in the Kentucky Bank Championship, formerly Fifth Third Bank Championships, for the first time in eight years and will have several local friends and family members there to cheer him on through the singles and doubles draw.

"The main goal now is to not lay an egg," he said.

The yolk did not fall on his face on Tuesday. He won his first-round singles match against Italian Erik Crepaldi 6-4, 3-6, 6-0 and will face Englishman James Ward in the second round at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Nothing he does at the Kentucky Bank Championships or in any tournament will get him out of his comfort zone of balancing coaching and competing.

"The team thing is one of a kind," Witten said. "I'm glad I'm coaching and getting able to coach those kids. One day, I'll move on. As long as I can do what I'm doing, I feel good."

Nick Gray: (859) 231-1330. Twitter: @ngray_63.

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