The fact that Marcus Willis was appearing at Wimbledon at all, he said earlier this week, was already “surreal” – only the 23rd best player in Britain and the world No 772, he is the second lowest-ranked player in the men’s singles competition this year and the lowest-ranked player to have earned a place through qualifying in almost 20 years.
He had better get used to it, because a match with Roger Federer could be next. The 25-year-old left-hander from Slough, who lives with his parents, served up one of Wimbledon’s famous plucky underdog fairytales when he defeated Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis – ranked a mere 718 places above him – on the opening day of the tournament.
Willis threw his hands in the air on securing the straight-sets victory and gave a roar of delight and, no doubt, disbelief. Certainly his arrival in the second round – and an assured paycheque of at least £50,000 – comes with a something of a backstory.
Forced to crowdfund to meet his touring expenses, he had nearly given up on making it as a pro and was planning to move to the US to become a coach when, on a night out at the start of this year, “I met a girl”, he says – Jennifer Bate, a dentist from Warwick. She encouraged him to stay, and since it was love at first sight, he did. So far this year, he has earned the princely sum of $292 (£220).
At the end of the match, Willis rushed to the crowd to embrace Bate, wrapped in a union flag, and a group of friends who had kept up relentlessly rowdy support throughout the match, including an adapted version of the chant of the summer: “Your defence is terrified of Willbomb on fire!”
Three or four years ago, he said after the match, he had been “overweight, seeing off pints. I was a loser.” What changed? “I looked at myself in a mirror and thought, I’m better than this.”
Though happy to admit he was playing “very, very good tennis”, success is unlikely to go to his head, not least because, being Monday, he should have spent the afternoon coaching five- to 10-year-olds in his local Warwickshire club (adult rate: £30 an hour). Asked his opinion of Federer’s game, he said: “He’s just a little bit better than me.”
It was a delightful early evening highlight to the opening day of tournament, where there was an almost palpable sense that – for all the turmoil elsewhere in the nation – at least somewhere people still knew how to keep calm and carry on.
Eight Britons took to the courts on the tournament’s opening day; as the matches progressed, they began to fall one by one – Kyle Edmund, Laura Robson, Alexander Ward and Naomi Broady were all defeated, until the British number 4 Dan Evans pulled off a hard-fought four set victory late in the day to join Willis in the second round. Highest profile of the defeats was James Ward, the British No 5, blessed or cursed with an opening contest on Centre Court against the defending champion Novak Djokovic, which ended in straight sets in just over two hours.
Politics could not be kept entirely at bay, however. Ward told reporters after his match that he had voted to leave in the referendum, and had no regrets. “Yeah, I voted out. I’m not fussed saying it. I don’t know others who are or not. But yeah, I voted out. I’m happy with my decision.
“I think we’ll be all right. Everyone needs to stop panicking and we’ll be fine.”
Ward, the son of a London black-cab driver, said he was not overly worried that life on the tour would be more expensive following the collapse in the pound. “It’s still an expensive life out there anyway. I don’t think it’s going to change too much.”
Djokovic, meanwhile, aiming to become only the second man in history to win five consecutive grand slam titles, said it had been an “almost flawless” start to the tournament.
He won the first nine games before Ward staged an impressive fightback in the second set, only to lose in a tie-break. “I honestly didn’t expect myself to start that well,” said Djokovic. “I’m very pleased with the way I started Wimbledon.” Andy Murray, who plays on Tuesday, look out.
When the rain stays away, of course, Wimbledon has sunlit uplands worthy of a Boris Johnson fantasy. From the hill above the Court One big screen there is a fine view of the City, but for one day at least tennis fans expressed relief to have a break from the troubling national drama.
“It’s another world in here, time has stopped,” said Wendy Allen, hunting for a spot on the grass at the top of Murray Mound with her friend Mary Parish, who was returning to the tournament for the first time in 38 years.
From Colchester, both are “very upset” remain voters, they said, “but life has got to go on; we have got the result that we have got and we just have to run with it.”
Would they manage to have a good day, all the same? “Oh yes. It’s quite nice to be in a different world, you can just forget about it.”
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