“Stranger things have happened,” he says before adding quickly: “Well, I don’t know – I had to stop myself there! It would be amazing ... but I’m just going to take it a point at a time.”
Willis, who coaches kids and grandmothers in Warwick for £30 an hour during the week and occasionally plays on the German and French club circuit at weekends, is still learning about interviews. He has “lost count” of how many he has done since he announced his arrival at Wimbledon with a stirring straight-sets win on Monday over the world No54, Ricardas Berankis, but he is handling himself just fine.
Now, though, he moves from an unlikely upset to an impossible dream. The fairytale just got serious.
It would, of course, be seismic if the part-timer ranked 772 in the world were somehow to beat the seven-times champion – or even take a set off him – but Willis cannot afford to slip into the role of joke contender.
He has hardly anything going for him but his talent, which is considerable, and the love of the crowd – which even Federer will struggle to share. The venerated Swiss has rarely played an underdog so separated from his sport’s mainstream as this one-time overweight, disillusioned rebel who still lives at home with his parents in Wokingham – “living the dream”, as he called it on Monday night. On Tuesday, as his story gathered momentum, Willis did his best to stay calm. “There’s been a lot of positivity, a lot of headlines. My life has changed pretty quick. I slept really well [after beating Berankis]. I was exhausted. I am very aware this is not just another match but I have to treat it that way. I can’t be overawed by the occasion.”
It will be only the fourth five-set match of his career, he says. And – getting real again – afterwards? He will not go back on to the Tour until maybe January, because he is content working on his game, getting rid of the remaining pounds that have hindered his progress so markedly, then “reset”, as he put it.
“I have a level of tennis and I need to do it week in week out. I need to stay physically fit and stay in a good head space. As long as I am happy and enjoying tennis that is the main thing.”
Reminded that a year ago his friend Dan Evans was exactly his ranking now, he laughed. “Dan’s a cheeky chappy. I have got a lot of improving to do still. It is easy now because everyone is loving it at Wimbledon. I have to step away from here and I have got to improve. The moment I start getting complacent is the moment that I stay 772 in the world.
“I still want to be a top-100 tennis player but, if I get inside the top 100, I will reset to top 50 and so forth. You have got to keep changing the goalposts. You can’t just sit there. It doesn’t work like that.”
Willis got into the main draw through the qualifying rounds at Roehampton – and was a wild card there, as late an entrant as there could be. The last British qualifying wild card to reach the second round of the main draw was Chris Eaton in 2008, when the world No661 lost to Dmitry Tursunov. That was also the last time any British qualifier won a main draw men’s singles match.
It is so long since Willis even ventured on to Centre Court as a fan he could not accurately identify which Andy Murray match it was he saw there in 2005. He figured it must have been the one against David Nalbandian. Now he is just soaking it up and charming tennis writers from around the world with his off-hand sense of humour, as well as his unconventional tennis.
Willis does not lack for inspiration or friends. Murray left a message on his crowded voicemail on Monday night. “That was lovely,” Willis says.
“Miranda Hart tweeted as well. It is all very nice. It’s an amazing experience for me. It is overwhelming.”
And what did Murray say? “I just want to congratulate you. I watched the last two sets. I hope to see you around.”
Willis saw James Ward give a decent account of himself against the world No1, Novak Djokovic, on his Centre Court debut on day one – after six years of trying – and he was thrilled for Evans, who is also through to the second round after beating the talented young German Jan-Lennard Struff in four sets. Have stranger things happened? We will know soon enough.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010