Britain cut itself adrift from the European Union; England’s soccer team froze in the face of invaders from the north and contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros and Marcus Willis won a tennis match at Wimbledon.
Willis, in fact, had won quite a few matches while qualifying for the main draw but his 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 win over Ricardas Berankis, a former junior champion here, was a bone fide first round win at the world’s most prestigious championships.
And, not only because Willis was ranked 772 in the world and virtually unknown outside that small coterie of fans who follow British tennis in minute detail, this amiable 25-year-old suddenly offered England it’s only ‘feel good’ factor for the entire month of June, apart from a very unexpected series win at rugby union in Australia. Overnight Willis became a national treasure and it no longer mattered what was going to happen to him in the second round.
He was going to have to face Roger Federer, a player Willis described as “being a little bit better than me.” And no, he hadn’t met the great Swiss. “I don’t think he was at the Tunisia Futures this year.”
So the lad has a sense of humor. And Marcus is a ‘lad’ in the way that the term is used in the UK – a bloke you’d like to have a pint and a laugh with down at the pub. There used to be a few too many pints.
“I was a bit of a loser,” he admitted with candor. “I was overweight even though I was staying off the pints. I don’t know – I just looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘You’re better than this.’”
And he was. Greg Rusedski, the former US Open finalist and British No 1 who worked with Britain’s Junior Davis Cup squad a few years back, knows all about Marcus. “He was obviously talented and had a varied set of skills,” Rusedski told me. “Firstly, he was a tactician. He used his brain. He was a powerful hitter but he could use the slice and come in. It all looked great but he didn’t apply himself and he wasn’t fit.”
Towards the end of last year, Willis got himself a coach, Matt Smith. “He worked really, really hard with me. I’ve always wanted to play Wimbledon but I didn’t have the drive. Now I’m here. I’m going to enjoy every minute and try to do it on a regular basis.”
The first round win against Berankis earned Willis $50,000 which is more money that he has ever seen in his life. Before he won a wild card through winning a qualifying event, he had earned a total of $292 all year. Which is why, even after this moment of glory, you will able to book Willis for an hour’s coaching at the Warwick Boat Club. It will cost you fifty bucks.
It is unlikely that the price will change that much. “I coach every age. Five, ten year-olds, which is carnage, to 60-year-old men and women. I do ladies doubles groups. Great fun. Good variation. They’re all lovely people.”
Marcus even has a lovely blonde girl friend who is probably responsible for all this. Willis was on the brink of heading off to Philadelphia to do some coaching and giving up on the idea of trying to make it on the pro tour when he met Jenny Bate and she persuaded him to give it another go. Jenny is a dental assistant and wouldn’t have been able to be present at his match had not some vital equipment broken down, freeing her up for the day.
His Mum, Cathy, was there, too. When he is not with Jenny, Marcus still lives at home. He’s a bit messy apparently but Cathy, who sings with the choir in the diocese of Reading, is not worried about that. She’s too proud of him and will be hitting all the right notes next Sunday.
It’s a story that even Federer agreed was wonderful for the game and it is one that can only emerge at big Grand Slam tournaments with their 128 player draws. On the regular ATP and WTA tours, there is seldom the opportunity for a 772th ranked player to get into qualifying, let alone the main draw. In a way, that is why the ATP tour is so much tougher. You rarely get to play anyone ranked outside the top hundred and the focus required is total.
Willis is now determined to join that elite group at the top of the game, even if it means giving up trying to help the ladies of the Warwick Boat Club with their morning doubles. But he is not going to change that quickly. A tournament car would have been available to take him to Wimbledon the day after his win. But he preferred to take the tube, even though people all around him were gazing at his photographs in the newspapers.
Actually, Marcus is not the first Wimbledon player to avail himself of the convenience and speed of the London Underground in the past few weeks. Novak Djokovic enjoyed a ride on it when he arrived a few days ago. Federer on court, Djokovic on the tube – Marcus Willis, the $50 an hour teaching pro, is suddenly keeping the right company.