A true underdog story
WIMBLEDON (CNN) — In the aftermath of the EU referendum, the United Kingdom finds itself divided. English Prime Minister David Cameron resigned and financial markets nosedived, devaluing the pound to 30-year lows in the currency market.
A nation of football lovers, English sports fans sought respite by fully casting their minds to the European Championship, where their team was meant to ease past Iceland in the second round Monday.
But even that didn’t happen. England fell 2-1 in one of its most humiliating defeats, with veteran manager Roy Hodgson having no choice but to step down himself.
Now that a little more time will be devoted to tennis in England’s dozen daily national newspapers — given the Three Lions’ failure to roar in France — the tale of Marcus Willis is set to snowball, bringing cheer to a wider audience.
The feelgood factor surrounding Willis at Wimbledon has caught the eye of his next opponent Roger Federer, in a year when match fixing and doping scandals have damaged tennis’ reputation.
“I think it’s one of the best stories in a long time in our sport, other than (Novak) Djokovic winning slams, Rafa (Nadal) doing a good comeback, and (Andy) Murray playing great,” tennis great Federer told reporters, citing his fellow “Big Four” members.
“This is the kind of story we need in our sport. I think it’s a great, great story.”
On Monday, Willis became the lowest-ranked qualifier — at 772 in the world — to win a match at a major since No. 923 Jared Palmer at the 1988 U.S. Open.
Third seed Federer and Willis are expected to battle in round two Wednesday, on either center court or the second-largest arena, court 1.
“I have followed it actually before I even saw him in my section of the draw,” said Federer, the men’s record 17-time grand slam winner.
Many down-in-the-dumps athletes rise to get their 10 seconds of fame, but Willis’ narrative is exceptional.
The 25-year-old didn’t receive a wildcard but instead had to go through two qualifying tournaments and six matches to land in the singles field of 128. His victory over former junior No. 1 Ricardas Berankis on a heaving Court 17 marked his first match at the highest level of tennis’ three professional tiers.
He seriously considered quitting professional tennis this year to coach full time in the U.S. but was convinced to keep on chugging by his new girlfriend, Jennifer.
A dentist, she initially thought watching Willis’ match Monday would be impossible. An equipment malfunction, however, allowed her to leave work and catch his straight-set dismantling of Berankis.
Pocketing $95,000 in his career prior to Wimbledon — he had earned a mere $300 this year after sustaining injuries — he still lives with his parents.
“I was a bit of a loser,” Willis told reporters. “I was overweight. I just looked myself in the mirror, I said, ‘You’re better than this.'”
A talented junior, he reached 15th in the boys’ rankings but was sent home from the Australian Open in 2008 for missing a practice.
“I was bigged up a lot. Then I got dropped in the real world. Played a few years in Romania, losing. I lost a lot of confidence. Made some bad decisions. Went out too much. Lifestyle wasn’t good. Yeah, didn’t have the drive. I found it three years ago.”
Every match day in qualifying and the main draw, Willis has checked out of his hotel, not knowing if he would continue the improbable journey. But he has, and isn’t about to alter his dinner meal of “tomato, pepper pasta” with “added chicken on.”
Perhaps a lot of extra chicken. He has been dubbed “Cartman,” a reference to the pudgy animated character on television show “South Park” — and doesn’t mind.
He danced to songs Monday on court, had no hesitation light-heartedly stirring up the crowd, and he possesses an unorthodox game to boot. Willis slices his forehand periodically and isn’t averse to serve-and-volleying in an era when such a tactic is becoming extinct.
“Marcus is a comedian — he’s the funniest guy on the tour, I think,” compatriot Liam Broady told reporters.
“(When) I played him in the States, he was drinking Pepsis on the court, eating Snickers on the court. That’s when he got the nickname Cartman. He lives up to it.”
His favorite clothes shops? A paradox. They come from budget chain Primark — but also Calvin Klein.
“He’s a good guy, friendly, harmless,” fellow British player Dan Evans, who like Willis is talented but has been disciplined because of his behavior by governing body the Lawn Tennis Association, told reporters. “Not a bad bone really. He’s a bit of a clown. What you see is what you get with him.
“He’s not putting anything on, on court, when he’s talking. That’s him. He’s just a bit of a joker, just enjoys himself.”
Willis coaches all age groups part time at the Warwick Boat Club near Birmingham in central England to supplement his income, and they have been rooting him on.
“He is a fun-loving sort of guy,” club administrator Louise Street told CNN. “He’s been a breath of fresh air here. He motivates people. Your coaching sessions with him are lively and good fun and he has a lovely nature on court. He’s good with all abilities.
“Not only is he good on court, he’s a good communicator, he’s good with people. There has been a lot of excitement at the club. He played out of his skin Monday and we can’t wait to watch him play Federer.”
The dream tussle with Federer evokes memories of Barry Cowan’s tilt with then four-time defending Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras in 2001.
Ranked 265th, the lefty extended Sampras to five sets in the second round after dropping the first two. He listened to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — the anthem of his favorite football team Liverpool — during changeovers for inspiration.
Willis is also a left-hander who supports the Reds.
“He’ll be stepping into the unknown,” Cowan told CNN. “I was cool, calm the day before the match, the morning of the match, physically I felt great. I was walking to court 1 and there’s a tunnel. I was walking ahead of Sampras and then it was like, ‘Oh, do I have to do this?’ I was petrified.
“But of course there’s no turning back. I’m sure there’ll be a little bit of that with Marcus but as soon as you hit a few balls and settle down, you win your first service game, life is a little easier.”
Willis will be the second-lowest-ranked player Federer has encountered at a grand slam after world No. 1,370 Devon Britton in the first round of the U.S. Open in 2009, so a win for the Brit would arguably be a bigger upset than Iceland eliminating England. He is guaranteed to collect $66,000 even if he loses Wednesday.
But Willis won’t need to defeat Federer to have earned a place in the public’s heart in an uncertain time in Britain.
“The money will help him travel and try to get closer to the top 100,” Cowan said. “But he’s not thinking about the money tomorrow. He’s thinking how great of an experience it’s going to be to play, right now, the best ever.”