When Levine, a slight, spidery 19-year-old, walked onto the Grandstand Court for his first professional match at last year's U.S. Open, the formidable Russian was waiting for him.
"You're playing the No. 4 player in the world," Levine said. "I'm not going to lie -- I remember being pretty overwhelmed."
Levine, who had received a wild card from the United States Tennis Association, won five games in three sets. Still, there was a $17,500 consolation check and the encouraging thought that in climbing the global tennis ladder not all of his opponents would be top-10 players. After the loss, Levine was fairly upbeat. His goal, he said, was to improve his ranking in a year's time -- after the U.S. Open, it was a distant No. 542 -- into the top 100 and earn his way into the main draw at the 2008 U.S. Open.
This is the story of how he almost pulled it off.
Levine recently accepted another wild card to the U.S. Open, which begins on Monday, but his ranking has risen to a more-than-respectable No. 106 -- an improvement of 436 spots. He was ranked No. 118 when the U.S. Open draw was locked in -- only 18 spots from direct entry. In the last year, Levine has won matches at the Australian Open and Wimbledon and was selected as a hitting partner of the U.S. Davis Cup team in Austria. He produced a 28-11 record in Challengers, the Triple-A of professional tennis, and a credible 7-13 record in ATP-level matches. That's a total of 59 matches and a record of 35-24. That doesn't include a dozen or so qualifying matches.
"I never heard those stats before," Levine said recently from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. "Obviously, I'm pretty happy about the year I've had. I was really close to the top 100. Hopefully, I can get there in the next couple of weeks."
And that's exactly how it happened. Levine got into the New Haven tournament earlier this week as a Lucky Loser qualifier and won his next two matches. By reaching the quarterfinals on Wednesday, he collected a minimum of 50 rankings points and will find himself inside the top 100 when he steps on the courts at the National Tennis Center -- right on schedule.
Levine is not yet a household name, but for six years now he has been on a career trajectory consistent with someone who is, at least in the tennis world: Donald Young. They met for the first time in the final of the 2001 U.S. Clay Court 14 Nationals at the Jimmy Evert Tennis Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Levine won the first set, lost the second and found himself trailing 0-5 with Young serving for match point at 40-15. They were already bringing in the table for the trophy presentation when Levine ran off an astonishing 23 consecutive points. He won 7-5 in the third.
"Jesse goes into a zone, something like a runner's high," remembered his father, Nathan. "It just started to happen. When he won, he was going back to baseline to serve again; he didn't realize the match was over -- that's how focused he was."
Young, an African-American from Chicago, became a teenage sensation, turning pro in 2004. A year later, at age 16, he was the youngest male to finish the year ranked No. 1 among world juniors. In the 2006 U.S. junior national championships, Young was declared the winner when Levine was stricken by food poisoning.
Today, however, they are in a virtual dead heat. Young is ranked in a tie for No. 98 in the ATP's 2008 Race, while Levine is at No. 102.
Both players share a diminutive stature that is considered a liability in professional tennis. As of last week, Levine said his weight was 152 pounds. This isn't the kind of muscle that's going to frighten hard-hitting Rafael Nadal or Andy Roddick. The average professional tennis player is about 3 inches taller (and 20 pounds heavier) than Levine's 5-foot-9 frame.
"When he hears that he's too small, not big enough, well, he just never listened," said Nathan Levine. "He says, 'I'm going to play this game.'
"And now he's showing everybody he can. He has a tremendous determination and heart and a passion for the game."
Rising to the challenge
Florida is the epicenter of world tennis.
The great tennis factories, including the Evert and Bollettieri Academies, are in the Sunshine State. Maria Sharapova moved there from Siberia when she was 9. Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean relocated there nine years ago. James Blake and the Williams sisters live there, too.
Jesse Levine was born in Ottawa, Canada, and began playing tennis at the age of 7. Has father played at Penn State. By the age of 13, Jesse had become one of Canada's most formidable juniors. The move to Boca Raton, Fla., however, was not inspired by tennis.
Jesse's brother Daniel, three years younger, suffers from ulcerative colitis. Everyone agreed that Florida's milder, gentler climate would improve his quality of life. It turned out to be a boon to Jesse's tennis as well. He enrolled at the Chris Evert Academy and eventually switched to Nick Bollettieri's IMG operation. To this day, a scholarship of approximately $30,000 covers his use of the facility, coaching and strength training.
After last year's U.S. Open, Levine's plan was to play some Challenger events and try to raise his ranking. Old nemesis Donald Young ended two of his next four tournaments -- in the semifinals at Tulsa and the quarterfinals in Louisville. But then in November, Levine suddenly found his game.
After qualifying, he swept through the field at Nashville, defeating five players who were all ranked higher, including Americans Robert Kendrick (No. 109) and Alex Kuznetsov (No. 209) in the semifinals and final.
"That first pro title was a big deal for me," Levine said. "I called my parents to tell them I'd won. I was pretty excited."
The victory in Nashville earned him a special exemption into the Challenger in Champaign, Ill., a week later. Again, Levine won all five of his matches. He handled John Isner in the semifinals and broke through with a victory over Young, beating him in two tense tiebreakers.
And so, in the first two weeks of November, Levine won all 10 of his matches and collected 123 ATP rankings points, which vaulted him nearly 200 spots -- from No. 389 to No. 192.
To the purist, Levine's game is aesthetically pleasing. His dazzling hand-eye coordination allows him to take the ball exceptionally early. He moves well, has all the shots, but his return of serve is his most valuable asset. He doesn't have a big weapon, but compensates by cleverly constructing points. Opponents are forced to play more balls than they're accustomed to. Levine is a serviceable volleyer and is not afraid to move forward as points play out. He's also left-handed, which makes him more difficult to play.
The only quiet month on the tennis calendar is December, and Levine planned to use the four weeks off to hit the gym and build some more power into his shots. He did not plan to play much tennis, but the USTA made him a tantalizing offer. He was one of three players invited to a round-robin mini-tournament at the Evert Academy. The prize? A wild card into the main draw at the Australian Open.
"At first, I was hesitant," Levine said. "I was trying to give tennis a rest. But, hey, I had nothing to lose. It was 10 minutes from our house in Boca."
Levine drove home from IMG in Bradenton, hit for a couple of days and enjoyed his mother's cooking. He defeated Kuznetsov and then Wayne Odesnik, 6-4, 6-4 on Dec. 20 and, suddenly, his travel plans were altered.
His opponent in the first round at Melbourne was Martin Vassallo Arguello, who had been part of a notorious match in Poland the year before with Nikolay Davydenko that sparked a betting scandal. The Argentine was ranked No. 77 in the world, but Levine throttled him in straight sets.
It was the first Grand Slam victory of his career.
Doing the right things
Much has been made of America's vanishing grip on the game of tennis.
True, there are seven players ranked ahead of Andy Roddick, and they are from Spain, Switzerland, Serbia, Russia, Great Britain and Argentina. But in 2007, the United States won the Davis Cup title.
Back in February, pushed by a series of requests from his players, U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe invited Levine to Vienna to be a practice partner for the first-round match against Austria, the team's first defense of its title. Levine had spent the past five months scuffling, mostly playing athletes outside of the top 100, but now here he was among the country's elite players: Roddick, James Blake and Bob and Mike Bryan.
"That's a call I'd wanted to get for a while," Levine said. "I look up to Andy, James, Bob and Mike. To cheer for those guys, to see how they come together as a team was great. Those guys work so hard, you get to see how intense they are as they prepare for matches."
It was Levine's work ethic, particularly, that impressed McEnroe.
"He's coming along, doing the right things," McEnroe said recently. "It's paying off for him. He's a hard worker and has excellent motivation."
Last summer, Roger Federer had come to the same conclusion when he invited Levine to come to Dubai and practice with him. Instead of playing in Indianapolis and Canada, Levine stayed in a five-star hotel and endured three- and four-hour hitting sessions with Federer. Levine's tenacity -- and his left-handedness -- helped prepare Federer for the U.S. Open and an anticipated meeting with Rafael Nadal. That matchup never materialized, but Federer won in New York, his most recent Grand Slam win.
After losing four of five ATP matches through the winter and producing some indifferent Challenger results, Levine arrived at Wimbledon. His name was already on a plaque on the wall in the men's locker room; Levine won the 2005 boys' doubles championship at the All England Club with Michael Shabaz. Levine won all three of his qualifying matches for the men's main draw, including a wild 6-3, 7-6 (8), 11-9 match with Pavel Chekhov.
Levine was in the locker room listening to the draw ceremony on the loudspeaker when his first-round opponent was announced: Donald Young.
"Pretty crazy, huh?" Levine said. "I was like, 'Wow. Are you kidding me?' We've played our whole careers against each other, Challengers all over the place and now we're playing in the first round at Wimbledon?"
He felt shivers and more than a few nerves as he walked onto Court No. 5 for that match with Young. Playing with confidence and aggression on the surface that best suits his game, Levine dispatched Young in four sets for his second Grand Slam singles victory. Later in the locker room, he received a congratulatory call from Shabaz, who plays at the University of Virginia. In the second round, Levine took Austrian Jurgen Melzer to five sets before succumbing.
A breakthrough opportunity presented itself last month in Toronto.
Levine had qualified for the toughest draw in the sport, an ATP Masters Series event, by saving a match point against Benjamin Becker and winning two more matches. Levine defeated Canadian wild card Peter Polansky, whom he had known since playing Canadian juniors at the age of 12, in the first round.
Next up: Rafael Nadal on Centre Court.
"Nadal is running sprints by me, trying to intimidate me," Levine remembered. "And -- I'm not going to lie -- I'm saying, 'Oh, Jesse, don't get intimidated.' The crowd is roaring, and I've worked hard my whole life to play in that spot, a great player in that big stadium.
"And then I came out on fire."
Levine jumped on Nadal, going up 4-1 and had two break points to take a 5-1 lead. Standing inside the baseline, he was seeing the ball with unnatural clarity and taking it earlier than he ever had before; at that point, Levine had 11 winners, while Nadal had just one. Levine was winning points at net, and the soon-to-be-No. 1 player in the world seemed confused.
"I didn't really know where I was," Levine said. "I've got cameras in my face on the changeover and I'm thinking, 'Oh boy, you're beating Nadal.'"
Nadal won 11 of the next 13 games to take the match.
"You get that feeling against him that you have to do something bigger than normal," Levine told reporters afterward. "You know it's not the right feeling to have, because he is human. You try and come up with shots that are just out of your mind or out of your shorts."
While Nadal earns in excess of $4 million a year to endorse his Babolat AeroPro Drive racket, Levine gets nothing for using his favorite Dunlop. The Shoes/Racquet/Clothing categories on his ATP online profile are all followed by "N/A." In fact, Levine gets all the rackets he can use from Dunlop for free, but when the manufacturer sent him the first shipment the spelling on the racket was wrong -- "Jessie" instead of "Jesse."
"When Andy Roddick saw it he was laughing pretty hard," Levine said. "He said he was going to put it in his blog. Yeah, I'm still playing with those rackets. By now, I'm used to them."
Surveying the next level
When Levine was battling with Donald Young at Wimbledon, Ricardo Acuna, a full-time USTA coach, was in Young's corner.
Now, he's coaching Levine.
"Donald wanted to do things on his own and with his parents," Acuna said last week. "I came free and Jesse was looking for some help. It just worked out."
They worked together for three days in Boca Raton at the beginning of the month and then Levine played the ATP tournament in Washington. In the first round he ran into Argentine teenager Juan Del Potro, who had beaten him in Miami and was in the midst of a groundbreaking four-tournament win streak. Levine broke Del Potro's formidable serve to open the match -- then promptly was broken at love.
"He needs a little more experience," Acuna said of his 20-year-old charge. "He needs to believe a little bit more."
The key to nurturing that belief, all concerned agree, is for Levine to get stronger.
"Obviously," Levine said, "I'm not the biggest of guys. That will be an offseason priority, to spend more time in the gym than on the court."
Acuna was born in Chile and says that American players historically focus more on their shot-making than physical conditioning.
"Jesse has a good understanding of how he wants to play," Acuna said. "Stronger legs will help his confidence. You need to maintain this through a long match."
Said McEnroe, "If he gets more solid on the legs, he'll get more pop on all of his shots. Jesse's got great racket speed, and I think he's got a lot of potential. Top five -- maybe not. But I do think he's got top 30-type potential."
As things stand, Roddick (No. 8) and Blake (No. 9) are the highest-ranked American men, followed by Mardy Fish at No. 35. Their three youngest pursuers are the 19-year-old Young (No. 99) and Sam Querrey (No. 54) and Levine (No. 106), who both turn 21 in October.
In some ways, Levine's yearlong journey, rising 436 spots up the tennis ladder, may turn out to be easier than navigating the next 50-odd spots to reach Querrey's level. There's a big difference in terms of earnings and the quality of life.
Last year, Paul Capdeville was the ATP's 100th-ranked player. It took the Chilean five years to reach that milestone, working his way up slowly, from No. 447 in 2003. Capdeville earned $186,402 in 2007, running his career total to $423,467. By contrast, 50th-ranked Filippo Volandri of Italy took home $450,715 in winnings last year alone. Even minus the daunting travel expenses incurred by professional players, that translates to a comfortable living.
Top-50 players qualify automatically for virtually every tournament they chose to play in; players hovering around No. 100 are often at the mercy of others.
This past Monday in New Haven, Conn., Jesse Levine was anything but comfortable.
He had struggled with a stomach ailment over the weekend and lost to fellow American Alex Bogomolov in the last round of qualifying for the Pilot Pen event. Levine was already in the doubles draw, but the first in line as a Lucky Loser, he was hoping there would be a late scratch that would allow him into the main draw.
His best chance?
"Hopefully," Levine said, "Del Potro pulls out after winning another tournament."
On Sunday, the guy who had beaten him in the first round at Washington had gone on to run his streak to 19 consecutive match wins and might have been looking for a little rest before the U.S. Open begins next Monday.
Sure enough, Del Potro pulled out late Monday and Levine was into the main draw. He won his second-round match on Tuesday and was playing for a berth in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Levine won't set his 2009 goals until after this season is over. He's focused on finishing the year with a bang and defending the points he earned last fall. He's hoping to get into some of the Asian ATP events after the U.S. Open but doesn't rule out playing a few Challengers.
His expectations for the U.S. Open?
Levine didn't hesitate.
"Better than last year," he said. "Better than last year."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.