Willis, the 23rd-best tennis player in the country, squeezed into the tournament only because his friend and rival Scott Clayton decided to skip the English grasscourt season.
Clayton, 22, travelled to Turkey instead to play in a Futures event at the Belconti Resort hotel in Antalya. He lost in the first round.
The 22-year-old had a place waiting in Wimbledon’s pre-qualifying tournament in Roehampton. He had not planned to take it but decided he would if he could make it back to London in time to sign up. Except the registration deadline was later that night and, when he checked, the first flight didn’t leave until the next morning.
Willis was waiting, next in line. Happy as Clayton is for him, he still sounded just a little rueful about it. “Marcus was obviously the last direct acceptance into pre-qualifying,” Clayton says. “But if I had been there that would have been me instead.”
Clayton could not be at Wimbledon to watch Willis play on Wednesday but was there to see his win against Ricardas Berankis on Monday, his seventh successive victory in a sequence that has carried the world No772 through pre-qualifying, qualifying, into the tournament fortnight, through the first round and on to Centre Court. “I saw him in the lounge after he beat Berankis,” Clayton says. “And he came up and said: ‘Thanks for not playing.’ I will squeeze a beer out of him next time I see him, for sure.”
Clayton says Willis’s run reminds him of the Paul Bettany rom-com, Wimbledon. “I think maybe there needs to be a sequel, Marcus Willis, because I think it would be a great film.” Even Federer agreed that this all felt “a little bit” like a movie script.
“This story is gold‚“ Federer said. It seems even he was fascinated by what Willis has done. “I must tell you, I was quite a bit intrigued even before he was in my section of the draw,” Federer said. “After he qualified I was reading a lot about his story.”
It was, Federer said, “definitely one of the matches I’ll remember” since “it’s probably not going to happen again for me to play against a guy 770 in the world”.
If anything, Willis brings to mind a line from Woody Allen’s tennis film, Match Point: “People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control.” Scraping into qualifying wasn’t even Willis’s biggest break. He would already have quit the sport and started work as a coach in Philadelphia if he hadn’t met his girlfriend Jennifer Bate at an Ellie Goulding gig.
Of course in sport it’s not just the luck but what you do with it when it comes, and Willis has taken advantage of this opportunity. Clayton’s friends have been teasing him about it.
“Everyone is saying: ‘If you had played ... blah blah blah.’” But as Clayton says: “You can’t take away what Marcus has done, he has beaten some serious players to get to this point, it is a major achievement and he deserves it.”
Clayton adds: “Am I surprised that he made it to the second round of Wimbledon? Yes, I would never have expected that back at the start of his run. But am I surprised that he can play this way? No. Because he is a very good player and I have seen him play this way before.”
Federer agreed. “What I like about his game is he reads it well. He knows when you’re coming in. He can slice easily, even really deep in the court. He chips it really well, cross-court and down the line. He sees when it’s short and he steps into the court and he goes for it.” Federer had treated the match like he was playing a man in the top 50 “because that’s how well he was playing”.
Willis has said he’s going to be playing for his club in the Coventry leagues on Thursday night. It would be some comedown. But he is £50,000 richer, and beyond that, as Federer says, “he can make big strides”. For Clayton it’s been an inspiration.
“There is not a lot of money at all at the bottom of the game. It is very tough. You are nowhere near breaking even. Ultimately it can get very disheartening.” But then you never know, maybe next year it will be his turn. “To see Marcus come through that, through qualifying, it gives us all a great reason to keep plugging away. Because it just shows, these things can happen. They’re rare, but they can happen.” Bet that next year he’ll be sure to turn up to play.
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