For years Marcus Willis has played doubles and a bit of singles for peanuts in empty arenas in every tennis backwater from Kuwait to Charlottesville, Virginia. His Tour earnings would not pay for a holiday in Tenerife or a three-course meal for him and his dentist girlfriend, Jenny Bate.
But nor could any amount of money buy the 25-year-old part-timer from Wokingham what he is about to experience on Tuesday: the slim hope of playing Roger Federer on Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Willis, who wears the startled look of a man who has won the Pools – and still lives at home with his parents – qualified for the championships after Scott Clayton’s last-minute withdrawal from Roehampton last week; he then had three fighting wins through the rain and wind to earn a first‑round shot at Ricardas Berankis, a Lithuanian a year older and 653 places ahead of him in the world rankings at 53.
Willis is the 23rd-best player in Britain and the lowest-ranked player in the championships. If ever anyone had nothing to lose it is he.He jumped from 775 when he beat the Russian Daniil Medvedev on Friday and earns £30,000 just for making the main draw at Wimbledon. His head is still spinning. But he and Berankis, regardless of their personal battle out on Court 17, know the real prize is a match on the biggest stage of all against the greatest player of all, Federer – providing the Swiss beats Guido Pella.
“It’s all surreal, the whole thing,” said Willis, a left-hander who earns a living coaching kids, adults and the occasional professional at Warwick Boat Club in the Midlands, as well as from club tennis in France and Germany. “I was last into pre-qualifying. Scott couldn’t get back from Turkey to sign in – or that would have bumped me out. I believe in God and I think he’s put things in my life like that. This stuff just doesn’t happen without something freakish like that.”
So what of another minor miracle, then: beating Berankis and walking on court alongside Federer? He said he would sleep well before the Berankis match. Federer might be another proposition. “I lost three out of three first-round quallies at Wimbledon. I put in dire performances. But hard work does pay off – just not straight away. I keep waking up in the morning and think, ‘Yeah, that happened?’”
Inevitably Andy Murray is part of his story. The world No2, who starts his tournament on Tuesday against another Briton, Liam Broady, his third in a fortnight, seems to pop into the narrative of nearly every British player. He said on Saturday Willis is an unconventional and talented player who causes most opponents problems. Willis was flattered, of course.
“I used to train with him a little bit when I was a junior and I was a hitting partner a couple of times with the Davis Cup,” he said. “I get on really well with him. Hitting up isn’t quite the same [as competition] but he is an inspiration to all of us.”
During a spell in the United States locals called the then hefty Willis “Cartman” after a character in the satirical cartoon South Park. He took it in good spirit and says he has lost a bit of weight since then.
“It was hilarious. I was massively overweight and I made quarter-finals of a Challenger and kept winning five in the third. I’ve got myself in much better shape. I’ve still got to improve and still a few kilos to get rid of but I’m doing it slowly and I’m fit. I can last. I’m in the best shape of my life.”
Away from the court life is looking up to. Injury and the struggle for survival forced him to the brink of quitting last year, until Jenny persuaded him to carry on.
“She is lovely. She is very, very positive, makes me think straight. I had got myself into a bit of debt – nothing major – but I tried to fund my own tennis the last couple of years. I just played and won at a Futures, lost in the final of the doubles – and my profit for a week was 60 euros. It’s cut-throat.
“The end of last year I tore my hamstring again after [playing in] America. Start of this year I was in a really bad place, didn’t want to get out of bed. Couldn’t find the motivation to do anything really. I was very close to packing it in. I needed to get some money behind me.
“There are a lot of us who can play well but don’t have great rankings. It is tough to get out of the Challengers and Futures tours. Financially and mentally it can break you. It breaks a lot of people. So many Brits in the past have given up before they hit 29, 30 – which I think is wrong. If you can keep yourself in the game, you will learn a lot. But I can understand why, because I was about to do it as well.”
If Andy Murray inspires those below him, those below will surely also take heart from the minor heroism of a talented but struggling outsider who has made it to Wimbledon – at least for one afternoon.
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