Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 30, 2016

Winning Week For A Wimbledon Wild Card

The Wimbledon fortnight is still in its early days. At this point casual tennis fans are barely paying attention, their interest limited to momentary surprise at news of an upset, such as Thursday’s second round loss by Garbiñe Muguruza, the reigning French Open champion and women’s second seed. By the weekend after next, when Novak and Serena or Andy and Angelique or two other familiar names take their turns standing on what will by then be the brown grass of Centre Court at the All-England Club, their championship trophies raised high, most of what happened during the first week of play will be forgotten. Most, but not all. For this year’s third tennis major has already given sports fans a reminder of the capacity of all our games to deliver the utterly unexpected; and in so doing to raise up unlikely heroes and create a reality more stirring than any work of fiction.

Marcus Willis is a 25-year old native of Slough, a town that sits twenty miles west of London, in close proximity to Heathrow Airport. Perhaps because of its rather unfortunate name, which rhymes with cow, Slough is frequently derided. Sky TV once ran a program highlighting the town’s high rate of narcotics use, and a team of experts worked to increase the satisfaction of residents in a four-part BBC series called “Making Slough Happy.” Until now the town was probably best known as the UK headquarters of Mars, Inc. and the site of a factory that began producing the Mars Bar for distribution to candy counters all over England more than seventy years ago.

Thanks to Willis after this week candy bars will rank second in any description of Slough. Since turning pro eight years ago he had been much more of a tennis professional than a professional tennis player. That is, his income from giving lessons at £30 an hour far exceeded his winnings on the court. In recent years he had struggled through injuries and the harsh reality that at the fringes of the sport tennis is a very hard way to make a living. Early this year he was ready to give up his dream of being a tour pro and was preparing to leave England for the U.S. and some coaching opportunities.

Then Willis met and immediately swooned for Jennifer Bate, a local dentist who convinced him to rededicate himself to the game he loved. His ranking, 775th in the world at the time, was just enough to allow him to enter a pre-qualifying tournament for Wimbledon. He did so with little expectation, as befits someone who in 2016 had played in exactly one tournament, an event in Tunisia at the lowest rung of professional tennis. There he advanced to the quarterfinals, earning a whopping $356.

But matched up against other British wild cards, Willis won three straight matches, which earned him entry into Wimbledon’s main qualifying tournament. He still needed to win three more times before he would be able to enter the All-England Club without purchasing a spectator’s ticket. Yet somehow Willis’s magical run continued. In the first qualifying match he rallied from one set down to defeat Yuichi Sugita; hardly a household name but at the time the 99th ranked player in the world. It was the first time in his career that Willis had beaten anyone in the top 100. He followed that with two more wins over players ranked hundreds of spots higher than himself; and with that Marcus Willis became a Wimbledon entrant, assured of earning at least £30,000.

It would have been a fine story had it ended there, with the 775th ranked player in the world making his first ever appearance in an ATP event at Wimbledon. There certainly would have been no shame had his opening round match against 53rd ranked Ricardis Berankis ended in straight sets. And indeed there was none, for that is precisely what happened. Except that the fine story took on the quality of a fairy tale because the player winning each of those sets was Willis. By scores of 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 he upset Berankis as friends and fellow Englishmen surrounding Court 17 went berserk. With the win Willis became the lowest ranked man to reach the second round of a Grand Slam tournament in nearly two decades.

His Monday victory on an outer court earned Willis a Wednesday date at the most revered location in tennis, Centre Court at the All-England Club. On the other side of the net stood seven time Wimbledon champion and this year’s third seed, Roger Federer. In the Hollywood version of this story the impossible underdog comes from two sets down to stun the man widely regarded as the greatest player of all time. The player who cashed a check for $356 in January beats the guy with more than $98 million in career prize money.

Of course this was not a sound stage made up to look like Centre Court but the real one on the leafy grounds of the private club in southwest London. But the fact that the result was predictable made it no less enjoyable; not the least because Willis gave a worthy performance. After being shut out in the opening set, he was broken by Federer just twice more. That was sufficient for a 6-0, 6-3, 6-4 victory by the prohibitive favorite; but not before the crowd rose to its feet and let loose a loud and extended roar when Willis, serving at 0-1 in the second set, held serve to win a game against Roger Federer. From there the match was surprisingly even, with Willis displaying a sure touch at the net while keeping Federer moving with frequent changes in pace. All the while the fans shouted their approval at every point won by the most unlikely player ever to volley at Centre Court.

After it was over, after Willis’s incredible run had ended, the always gracious Federer described his opponent’s improbable story as “gold,” adding “it was a great test for me, because Marcus played a lot of drops and lobs and slices, so my footwork had to be up to it.” One of those lobs was a thing of beauty that from a position near the net Federer had no chance of reaching. “I can say I lobbed Roger Federer,” Willis said after the match. He also joked that it was “not my standard Wednesday, that.” It wasn’t a standard Wednesday for the All-England Club either. For Wimbledon and for sports fans it was something much, much better.

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