From Futures to Federer: The story of Marcus Willis

Just a few weeks ago, Marcus Willis was an unknown quantity, combining a playing career in the tennis backwaters with a position as a coach of the sport he loves at Warwick Boat Club. Plying his trade in league tennis in France and Germany, his decision to enter the world’s most famous tournament was on something of a whim. Following a Futures tournament in January this year, he contemplated throwing in the towel and going to America to coach full-time. After meeting his now girlfriend Jennifer Bate and talking through his options, she convinced him to give it another go. It’s turning out to be a pretty decent decision.

Willis’ ranking of 781 was so low that he had to negotiate three rounds of pre-qualifying at Aorangi Park, the Wimbledon practice courts (and even then he only squeaked in as another player couldn’t get back to the UK in time to register). His lack of familiarity with grass this year did not inhibit him, and after progressing to the qualifying stage, he inched up to 775 in the world. Still, nobody could have predicted what was to follow.

His first task was to see off 27-year-old Yuichi Sugita, who at No.99 in the world, was supposedly too much for Willis to handle. After losing the first set, the Slough-born player stepped up his game to take the next two sets emphatically and set up a second qualifying match, against Andrey Rublev of Russia. Again, the 25-year-old surmounted that obstacle, who was situated more than 600 places above him in the sport’s ladder. The final player to stand in his way of a place in the main draw was Daniil Medvedev. This was to be another huge ask against the rangy Russian. However, after falling behind, the Briton regathered his composure and took the match in four sets to secure a place in his first ever Grand Slam main draw.

Despite this being the biggest match of his life, Willis did not seem cowed by his opponent, 26-year-old Ricardas Berankis. As we have learnt by now, rankings mean nothing, but it was still a monumental task for the tennis coach to overhaul a guy in the best form of his life and knocking on the door of the top 50. Despite the supposed gulf in quality, he bossed the match pretty much from the outset, eventually tying up a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 win to spark emotional scenes on court. Willis embraced members of his entourage and his barmy fanbase, which will no doubt swell over the coming days.

The fairytale continues, as the British No.23 will come up against Roger Federer in the second round, regarded by many as the greatest grass court player of all-time. Even if he is eliminated now, he will bag a cool £50,000. Not bad for a man who has made just over £200 on the professional tennis circuit in 2016. Will reality catch up with the Slough sensation, or is the biggest shock still to come?

Alex Bowmer

Image: Clive Brunskill/Getty

 

Wildcards lend Britons unfair advantage

Wimbledon is once again almost upon us. Every year, the British public ponder who the champions might be, and whether any home-grown player besides Andy Murray can go far in the tournament. In fact, there are reasons for optimism in this regard. Not only is the 2013 Champion at SW19 once again among the favourites, but he has three companions who are in the top 100 in the world: Aljaz Bedene, Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans. On the women’s side, Johanna Konta has really put down a marker and shot up the rankings over the last twelve months to a recent career high of No.18 in the world, while Heather Watson and Naomi Broady also qualified automatically for the year’s third Grand Slam.

However, most of the other players from the home nations have been granted a wildcard for the world’s premier tennis competition. For someone like Laura Robson this makes more sense, as her last two years have been massively disrupted by injury. Before her wrist troubles, she had been showing a lot of promise, and it is reasonable to assume that she would be a lot higher up the rankings had she been injury-free. She had also made the last 16 at Wimbledon three years ago.

Many of the others though seem to have been given solely on the basis that they are British. It is highly likely that the majority will drop out at the first-round stage. Admittedly, Liam Broady made the second round last year, but his ranking has dipped quite a bit in the last twelve months. James Ward has not repaid the faith shown in him by the wildcard selectors at the All England Club. Despite enjoying some extended runs at Queen’s Club and representing Great Britain well on the Davis Cup stage, he has only got past the opening round twice at SW19 in six attempts. Finally, Tara Moore has been hovering around a similar ranking for the last few years, with her two appearances in the main draw ending in defeat.

Players from countries around the world are likely to feel aggrieved at the number of wildcards frequently dished out fruitlessly to British hopefuls. The prize money that a player lower down the rankings can make from a Grand Slam, even going out in the opening round, is invaluable. However, only four majors are held each year. Therefore, the players in these host countries are given a leg-up in a clear show of national nepotism. Players perhaps in greater need of financial assistance and of greater ability are made to toil away in the qualifiers while seeing their lower-ranked counterparts receive a direct pass through to the big stage. To top it off, few, if any, British players have demonstrated that they have improved over the years to warrant wildcards being handed to them on a consistent basis.

It is great to have British representation at our home Grand Slam, but it does create an uneven playing field below the upper echelons of the game.

Alex Bowmer

Image: Eddie Keogh/AELTC

 

Sport is nothing without support

 

Why are some sporting moments more memorable than others? Sure, an eye-catching performance or pass will get tongues wagging, but the atmosphere or context of the match also carries an awful lot of weight. The match itself might not be exciting, but the feelings generated on that day, of animosity, tension, excitement, euphoria and despair stay with you.

While tribalism and nationalism have plenty of negative elements, it does alter people’s perceptions of sporting contests to make the experience more enjoyable. We feel an intense affiliation to a set of people with whom we have no connection other than birthplace and nationality. Only tiny villages or hamlets allow everyone to know everyone else personally. Anything bigger than that and, as Benedict Anderson says, it is an ‘‘imagined community.’’ A classic example of this was the game between England and Wales on Thursday. It wasn’t just a case of 11 v 11, it was two nations vying for supremacy. In the end, the game itself wasn’t a great spectacle, but the historical context and atmosphere surrounding the match made for gripping viewing.

Rivalries also develop not only due to geographical proximity, but also between two successful teams and players. In the Open era, the rivalries like the one between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have captured the imagination. When you have two players at the top of their game pushing each other, excitement inevitably builds. One match that stands out in my memory was the 2008 Wimbledon final between the two players. The contest took place before the installation of the Centre Court roof, and due to a few rain delays the tension was drawn out over an excruciating seven-and-a-half hours, during which time some spellbinding shots were played. The raucous nature of the crowd on that day told you that this match was incredible. There have been games of similar length and competitiveness in earlier rounds of Grand Slams, but these games were not accompanied by such fanfare.

If Federer and Nadal were playing a match in a public park with the same intensity as that day eight years ago, would there be that same awe and excitement? Definitely not. This may be because we know there would be nothing at stake, but it demonstrates that we do not rank sporting moments by quality of performance alone. The stage matters, as a Washington Post social experiment found. We often do not notice beauty when we see it unexpectedly.

In sports like boxing or MMA, the question of atmosphere in putting a bout in the history books holds even greater levels of significance, pitting individual against individual in the most primal way. The tributes to Muhammad Ali following his death a fortnight ago reminded the world of his lyrical skill and his ability to psyche himself up while intimidating and riling his opponents before they had set foot in the ring. Conor McGregor, although somewhat different in style and not as well known, has taken on that mantle in a sense. This ability to build excitement for a contest is helped by the fact that athletes in combat sports may only have two or three fights a year. Despite being in the arena for a miniscule amount of time relative to training, they still command the attention of millions of fans around the world, many of whom will pay eye-watering sums of money to see their idols compete.

To sum up, it is undoubtedly true that moments of genius live long in the memory. However, these moments always resonate most when they are accompanied by a feverish atmosphere, when the crowd truly recognises that what they are witnessing is special.

Alex Bowmer

Image: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

France look to make home soil count

For those still grieving the end of an incredible Premier League season, relief is imminent. Euro 2016 begins on Friday, and marks the start of a month of international football.

For the first time the competition has expanded from 16 teams to 24, creating more groups, fixtures and an additional knockout round. But who will emerge from this as the European Champions?

My personal favourites are France. They are hosting the tournament, and according to history, their national team always thrive on home support. The 1984 Euros and the 1998 World Cup, both of which were held in France, were also won by Les Bleus. In addition, the French team now boast a whole host of exciting young players looking to make their mark on the international stage. Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have all had excellent seasons for their respective clubs and will look to do the same for their country. The team as a whole look innovative and fast-paced, and with the crowds behind them, they will do well.

Germany as always will have a great chance. Many of the key players from the 2014 World Cup victory remain, and Thomas Muller is still in great goalscoring form. However, doubts have been raised over the Germans’ form, with recent losses over the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia. Die Mannschaft will be the ones to beat at the tournament, but these defeats will give other teams confidence.

In the year of the underdog, there are also a number of dark horses who could become surprise champions. After all, Greece shocked everyone to beat Portugal in the Euro 2004 final. Austria may not be able to take it this far, but they could surprise. The team were dominant in their qualifying group and feature league winning players such as Bayern’s David Alaba and Leicester’s Christian Fuchs. The group draw was also favourable for them, with Iceland, Hungary and Portugal making up the rest of Group F, making progress likely.

Croatia could also impress, with many of their key players plying their trade at the world’s best clubs. Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona, Luka Modric of Madrid, Mario Mandzukic of Juventus and Ivan Perisic of Inter Milan are all in excellent form and this could propel Croatia far into the knockout round. However first they must negotiate a tricky group stage featuring Spain, Czech Republic and Turkey.

Finally Wales could potentially impress in their first major international tournament in 58 years after a strong qualifying campaign, finishing two points behind Belgium. Gareth Bale can have an instrumental role in Wales’s progress and can finally make a mark on the international stage. The Welsh defence should also be solid, with only four goals conceded throughout qualification. Controversial though this may be, Wales have a good chance at beating England in their group game.

Moving on to England. Once again the Three Lions go into an international tournament surrounded by subdued expectation. This is Hodgson’s third international tournament and it finally feels like this is his team; a move away from the ‘‘golden generation’’ of English football, with only Wayne Rooney remaining from those disappointing days. Fans will look at the sharp attacking edge of this England team and feel hopeful. Kane and Vardy were the first and third top scorers in the Premier League this season, and with the youthful, creative Dele Alli and the experienced Wayne Rooney playing in behind them, goals can be expected. However, it will be at the other end of the pitch that will cause concern. England’s defence looks shaky, with the back four hardly inspiring confidence. England should get through the group stage and past the last-16, but will fall foul to more clinical opposition in the quarter-finals.

What is guaranteed is a month of drama, excitement and goals galore. Euro 2016 kicks off this Friday with France v Romania at 8pm on ITV1.

Nancy Gillen

Featured image: Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images Europe

Mental health: The hidden reality

Implexus Gym, situated on an industrial site in Armley, was the setting for my interview with Leeds Rhinos loose forward Stevie Ward. It is a far cry from the bright lights of Headingley Carnegie Stadium, where the Rhinos currently ply their trade. He is currently on the home straight of a lay-off which has kept him out of the game since September 25 last year, when the Rhinos scored a last-gasp try through Ryan Hall to see off Huddersfield Giants and win the League Leaders’ Shield. That day however was tinged with bitterness for Ward, who ruptured his ACL, while his meniscus and cartilage also split. The scar on his right knee is a reminder of the pain that day holds. Such an injury would have consigned someone to retirement not too long ago, but thankfully players can now make a full, albeit painstaking recovery.  He is now firmly back on the path to returning to the first-team fold, and has earmarked 10 July as his comeback game, against Wigan Warriors.

This time away from the game has allowed him to pour his energies into Mantality, an online magazine which predominantly looks at mental health and draws on Ward’s own struggles in the competitive cauldron of rugby league, with the main demographic being the ‘‘millennial male.’’ His passion for the subject is clear, and he talks animatedly about the fact that in an age when many people are intensely preoccupied with how they are perceived by other people, it is in fact our opinion about ourselves which is most important. What will mark out the magazine from others is the honesty and grittiness of the content, which is fuelled by the vast gamut of emotions he has experienced in a relatively short career. Despite having been on the sidelines for a combined total of two years at the age of 22, the Leeds native has also picked up the Super League crown in 2012 and the Challenge Cup in 2014 for his hometown club, as well as being part of the all-conquering treble-winning side last season. This places Ward in an ideal position to deliver what he terms a ‘‘realist approach.’’

The former England youth player is acutely aware of the pitfalls of your work shaping your entire identity and is very open about his struggles with depression two years ago, which surfaced during recovery from a debilitating shoulder injury. ‘‘I came back fit to play, but I couldn’t physically get to where I needed to be. I couldn’t do stuff in the gym that I needed to do and I couldn’t do stuff on the field that I needed to do to be as good as I can be, and I think I really struggled to cope with that, because as a rugby league player that’s my identity.’’ This intensely personal struggle was a driving force behind his decision to set up the magazine and help those going through similar feelings, in whatever field. Having already achieved many of his on-field dreams, he felt it was time to set himself a challenge ‘‘which is taking a risk, it’s out there, it’s a bit different.’’

Ward has also talked movingly about how his nana’s battle with cancer altered his outlook on life. Clearly emotional, he says that following that harrowing experience, he ‘‘found a more resilient way to cope with things.’’ Despite ‘‘two six-week spells on crutches,’’ he acknowledges that he has a fresh perspective on his situation.

However, this is not to belittle the depression and anxiety that Ward has experienced during his career. He is able to pinpoint the fact that his symptoms cropped up as a result of his injuries and his tough battle back to form, but astutely points out that it is not always easy to identify the cause of depression, underlining the complexity of the condition. Depression robs you of your self-worth, and you find yourself ‘‘on a constant stream of low moods.’’ It is crucial that people ‘‘speak to a doctor and find the best way [forward] specifically for them.’’ Ward has found that being productive and having a creative outlet has been the best medicine for him. ‘‘For me, you’ve got to grab hold of something you can do and invest your time in, a lot of time in, and positively use that.’’

At the forefront of Ward’s thinking was opening up the conversation about mental health in rugby league and society more generally. ‘‘I’ve had lots of people emailing me from different countries, different sports, just saying that they were happy that I put that out there, just because it breaks down the door that’s hiding the realistic side of life, very much the realistic side of life – whether we like it or not.’’ There is a focused anger to his words when he says that we should not simply gloss over a topic that will affect one in three people directly during their lifetime, while many more will be impacted as a consequence. ‘‘Why are we hiding it, why are we going about it as if it’s not there? Let’s address it as if it’s a physical injury. Let’s speak about it. There’s certainly a slow-burning appetite for people to start talking about it, for males to start talking about it, and just trying to get either a resolution or to find confidence in their friends.’’ Unfortunately, the suicides of several professional sportspeople in recent years have demonstrated that work still needs to be done to make people feel comfortable about speaking out.

The importance of having supportive friends and family around you then came into the discussion, with Ward noting that ‘‘sometimes you can’t listen to anyone and sometimes you’ve got something in your head and you just go with that.’’ The fear of judgement may be a reason that people don’t speak up, but he insists that friends and family will give constructive advice. The response online to the magazine has been immense, clearly demonstrating how this issue resonates with so many people, irrespective of profession or age. Ward’s article on the website, entitled ‘‘The Dark Side of Sport,’’ received phenomenal feedback, with many people, in sport or outside, identifying similar feelings at various points in their own life, and thanking him for openly discussing his own struggles. ‘‘It’s a hard thing to put your finger on for who’s suffering and where but it’s something that needs addressing, and this magazine’s a platform for it, and just a realistic approach to life as it is, rather than dressing everything up.’’

This desire to put on a front is something that Ward acknowledges he is still guilty of to an extent, pointing out that his Instagram snaps only contain photos of him when he seems happy and positive. The darker moments are hidden from view. This shouldn’t stop people from celebrating their victories or joys, but it is dangerous to project constant positivity if the truth is not so rosy. He also urges fans to think twice before they post something critical on social media. ‘‘You just have to have a second thought, and think ‘what’s the background, how long is he injured for?’ because there is a perception of injuries that fans will say casually, ‘oh, he’s injured again,’ as if the player wants to be injured. It is a bizarre thing, but that’s something I am going to look at changing, and hopefully people can see different.’’

Ward is clearly very ambitious and has aspirations to continue to promote the magazine, which has just shy of 1,000 followers on Twitter since its launch last month. Having a high-profile sportsman be open about these issues can only be a good thing, and the magazine gives him an ideal platform to help people and hopefully save some lives in the process.

Alex Bowmer

Website: mantalitymagazine.com

Twitter: @mantality_mag

Featured image: Alex Whitehead/swpix.com