Marcus Willis, a 25-year old tennis Brit ‘journeyman’ – one of the many professional tennis players in danger of throwing away initial promise to never quite ‘make it’ all their lives – had earned a total of 65 pounds prior to the ongoing Wimbledon at London’s SW19. He had never played a match at the highest level, after being once ranked 15 in the juniors back in 2007, before he was sent home for yet another disciplinary lapse from the 2008 junior Australian Open. His funding of 10000 pounds a year was cut immediately. Many predicted that the youngster, who was tipped to do great things once he made it to the senior tour, would overcome attitude issues and his love for partying to rise like many greats often did. But Willis soon went from bad to worse, losing the drive, putting on so much weight while playing in the lowest ring of tournaments throughout Europe, that he was known as ‘Cartman’ (after the famous fat South Park character) on tour. He would drink Pepsi and eat Snicker bars on court at the intervals.
Earlier this year, in his third year with new coach Matt Smith, Willis considered quitting the tour forever. He was ranked outside the Top 500 again, and after two years of hard work and losing all the weight, and pushing himself to the limits physically, he was nowhere near where he wanted to be. Hell, nobody in England had heard about him. So broke, living with his parents, he decided to take up a coaching job at the Warwick Boat Club – where he would teach Under-8s and teens for 30 pounds a session.
He still holds that job. Only, now, he has been away for two weeks, and doesn’t know when he’s heading back. And it isn’t because he is dead broke in some cold corner of Spain or Italy at some Challenger tournament – he won a tournament in Spain earlier this year, and made a profit of 60 princely Euros that week – but because he has just become Britain’s go-to darling after quite possibly the nation’s worst week in modern history.
Marcus Willis remembers the conversation he had with his girlfriend, a dentist, back in January. She prodded him to give it one last shot this year, especially at Wimbledon, where he needed some luck to even be considered for pre-qualifying. There was no way he could endure yet another year of waking up every morning a disappointed and broken young man, before spending nights partying and dancing his troubles away. He likes the good life, but maybe not as much as he once used to – because now, he is an adult with much to lose, not a kid with the world at his feet.
And so, here he is, in the second round of the Men’s Singles draw of Wimbledon 2016, on the verge of facing a Swiss player named Roger Federer. Ranked 772 in the world, Willis is the second lowest-ranked player Federer will ever face in a Grand Slam. And nobody could care less. He is the Cinderella story that his nation needed, and after battling through three pre-qualifying matches and three qualifying matches, Willis defeated World No. 54 Ricardas Berankis in the first round.
The leftie is a slice master, and seems to be extending his casual coaching-manual play onto his biggest stage, winning the biggest match of his life on Court No. 17. In 2001, a journeyman named Barry Cowan, ranked 265, stretched Pete Sampras to five sets in the second round, after losing the first two sets. Come Wednesday, the likable rogue will follow Novak Djokovic’s second-round match by stepping onto court with the great Federer. His dream may end on the day, but perhaps this was the push he needed to remind himself why he started playing the game. Guaranteed to be 65000 pounds richer even if he loses, Willis will do well to use his funds to battle his way into the Top 200 by the end of the year. But again, under pressure, with the country’s eyes on him for the foreseeable future, he doesn’t want to become one of the three forgotten players who defeated Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. He wants to be more, even if he loses to a Federer.
Come Wednesday, Willis, fitter, older and wiser, will be hope he extends and fuels Federer’s problem against lefties. Come Wednesday, Willis will no more be the tour’s precautionary story. By the end of the week, he expects to be back at the Boat Club with plenty of stories to tell. Which week will that be?