If you are a sports fan, by now you have probably heard the story, but you haven't heard it from me, and I can't not talk about it, it is far too wonderful. Marcus Willis, 25 years old, a teaching pro at a club in central England, ranked 772 in the world, won three straight matches at a pre-qualifier for English players (Wimbledon being the English Open), then three more matches in qualifiers to earn a spot in the main draw and his first ever match in any ATP Tour event, much less a Grand Slam. Is that improbable enough? No? Well then how about this: He played his first-round match of the main draw against Ricardas Berankis, a player ranked some 718 spots ahead of him--and won in straight sets. Is that enough to make the story magical? No? Well, then there's this: with that win--Willis to this point undefeated for his career at the Tour level--he earned himself a match against the most popular player in the game, possibly the greatest player who ever lived, Roger Federer.
How do you begin to imagine the feeling? From being one more gifted but undermotivated player, bouncing around the challenger and club level of the sport, staying just involved enough to still have your dream alive to the point that you say, "Sure, I'll enter that tournament, what do I have to lose?" to playing a match against the greatest of all time at the greatest tournament of all at the most famous court in all of tennis? One day you are an unknown, and then you go on an improbable six-match winning streak, enough to earn you a nice payday, far better than the $292 you had earned year-to-date, and then you win one more match, more improbable still, and then two days later you get to walk into a sold-out Centre Court, against a superstar, and have people cheering for you. You would feel, I think, like you could walk on water.
But then, cruelly, you can't get carried away with that feeling, because all of those people cheering for you are cheering for the moment as well, and in this moment they are there to see a tennis match, and you are a professional tennis player (despite having only ever lost money, net, in pursuing your career), and so you have to ground yourself enough to play tennis, and play tennis well, and try, improbable as it may be, to win. That is what you are here to do. It's not like you won a lottery. You worked to get here.
And Marcus Willis did a wonderful job of balancing the moment and the job, considering. He was so nervous that he missed volleys during warm-up, and laughed. He threw his arms up, as though in victory, just for making it through the warm-up. But he came to play.
And to his enormous credit, he played to win. His game was idiosyncratic--slice forehands, unusual lobs, tricky angles--but he came with a game plan. Sure, first-set nerves doomed him to a bagel. Reasonable enough, don't you think? He lost the first game of the second set on Federer's serve. But on his next serve, he held. The crowd cheered like he'd won the match.
He played with Federer the rest of the way. He held serve except for once in each remaining set. It may be true that Federer took his foot off the accelerator after the first set--one has to think that not even as great a competitor as Federer wants to triple-bagel the best story in the tournament--but it was hardly the most simple, straightforward win of Federer's career. Willis did not simply roll over.
By making the second round, he earned £47,000, enough to allow him to compete on the tour for maybe a year; and 45 ranking points, which, well, isn't exactly going to launch him into the top 50. But perhaps he's such a story that he'll get some wild-card entries into other tournaments. With his play, he showed he could survive at tour level. With his personality, he showed that the tour would be better for him being there.