He looked across the net, this tennis player with a dream but no reputation, this Englishman who somehow made it not only to Wimbledon but also Centre Court, and there he saw Roger Federer.
“It was a bit surreal,” he confided.
The Brits have been longing for this sort of story, especially after the “Brexit” vote set the country spinning, especially after the loss to Iceland—Iceland!—in the European soccer championship had everyone depressed. It was a feel-good tale that even Federer said he found intriguing.
Marcus Willis, a struggling pro from Slough, west of London, had decided to chuck the tour and accept a tennis teaching job in Philadelphia. But a woman he met, and with whom he’s now seriously involved, Jennifer Bate, a dentist, persuaded him not to leave.
He received a pre-qualifying spot, used that to advance to main qualifying and, with his left-handed shots and herky-jerky style, became the first Brit to advance to the main draw through qualifying since 2008.
His first-round victory over 53rd-ranked Ricardas Berankis gripped the country—front page stuff—and Wednesday sent him up against Federer, a seven-time Wimbledon champ.
Federer, 34, won of course, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4, under the retractable roof because it was raining, and yet Federer said the match was as memorable for him as for Wills.
“As I was playing, I was thinking about the match,” Federer said in an unusual admission for a great athlete. “I was thinking this is definitely one of the matches I’ll remember. This one will stand out because it’s special and probably not going to happen again for me to play against a guy 770 in the world.”
For Willis, who had earned something like $340 all year until this Wimbledon — his winnings here are more than $50,000 — the memory is more specific.
“I played a good point,” he said about a game in the first set after he slipped on the grass, “where I lobbed him. I can say I lobbed Roger Federer.”
He could also say that on serve he was ahead of Federer, 4-3, in the third set.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have enough of these stories anymore,” Federer said, “where a junior, 16, would make a run like that, we would be talking about … I said a few days ago, this story is gold. I just hope the press respects his situation.”
Willis certainly respected it. “I did look up twice as I bounced the ball and saw Roger Federer,” he said, “and thought, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen this before.’”
Rain delayed play and forced cancellation of dozens of matches, including Venus Williams’ second-rounder. Former UCLA star Dennis Novikov, a winner Tuesday over Luke Saville of Australia, is tentatively scheduled to face Portugal’s Joao Sousa Thursday in the second round.