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?
Image: Clive Brunskill/Getty