NEW YORK — Former University of Kentucky tennis player Jesse Witten continued his surprising run at the U.S. Open in New York on Thursday with a 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 second-round victory over Maximo Gonzalez of Argentina.
Witten, ranked No. 276 in the world, split the first two sets with the 79th-ranked Gonzalez and trailed 5-3 in the third set before roaring back to win the final four games of the set. Witten then finished off the wilting Gonzalez in a 42-minute closing set.
Witten got into the Open through the grueling qualifying tournament. When he beat Igor Andreev, the 30th seed, in the first round, it was the first tour-level victory of his career.
"At the beginning of the year, I was playing future events, where it's a total purse of $10,000," Witten said Thursday. "The winner gets $1,200. You have no ball kids. You don't change balls."
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By reaching the third round, where he'll face No. 4 seed Novak Djokovic, he's guaranteed $48,000, about one fifth of his career earnings to date.
"It's been a long time, and a lot of guys have doubted me, so it's nice," Witten said of the raise. "It's nice to get money for what you love to do."
Witten has been playing professionally since 2005 after earning All-America honors five times (four singles, one doubles) and being named 2005 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year at UK.
He's drawn a lot of Kentucky blue to Flushing Meadows, and his fans were quite vocal Thursday.
"I had (UK) Coach (Dennis) Emery here. ... My sister and my mom made it in this morning. So I had a good crowd, and they pulled me through it because I think they were really getting the other guy down and really got in his head a little bit."
He'll need all the support he can get against Djokovic, who is ranked No. 4 in the world and made it to the finals of this event two years ago. But Witten said he has thrived on the atmosphere in New York and doesn't mind the pressure.
"It's easier to play out here, actually. You have fans, and you have something to kind of play for. When you're out there, there is a couple of people watching, and it's all on you," he said, referring to the lower-tier events. "... Here, I have the fans. You have a big setting. You have people that love tennis and love U.S. tennis. Definitely makes it easier, and you get amped up to play."