Wimbledon: Roger Federer next for British sensation Marcus Willis after amazing victory

World No 775 admits he hasn't always taken his tennis seriously

Paul Newman
Monday 27 June 2016 21:54 BST
Marcus Willis will face Roger Federer next
Marcus Willis will face Roger Federer next (Getty)

It will be like Real Madrid playing Rainworth Miners Welfare or Leicester Tigers taking on the Old Whitgiftians. Roger Federer’s second-round opponent here on Wednesday will be the world No 775, Marcus Willis, who by his own admission was an overweight “loser” until he started taking his tennis seriously three years ago.

The 25-year-old Briton’s extraordinary run took another remarkable turn when he won the first match he has ever played at a Grand Slam tournament, beating Lithuania’s Ricardas Berankis, the world No 54, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. Federer, eight times a Wimbledon champion, got his campaign under way by beating Argentina’s Guido Pella 7-6, 7-6, 6-3.

There could hardly be a greater contrast between Federer, arguably the greatest player in history, and the coach from Warwick Boat Club he will be taking on in his next match. Willis had to win three matches in a pre-qualifying event and three matches in qualifying just to make the main draw.

By reaching the second round Willis has guaranteed himself a pay cheque of £50,000, which will almost double his total career earnings, which stand at $95,129 (about £72,100). This year he has won a grand total of $356 (about £270), having played in only one event, a Futures tournament in Tunisia in January.

Federer, meanwhile, has earned career prize money of $98,145,225 and won 88 titles, including 17 at Grand Slam level, seven of which have been here at Wimbledon. Just about the only field in which Willis can beat Federer is in shape and size. Willis stands 6ft 3in tall and weighs more than 14 stone, compared with Federer, who is 6ft 1in tall and weighs nearly a stone less.

Marcus Willis savours the moment (Getty)

Willis is in better shape than he used to be. Asked what he had been like three years ago, Willis said: “I was a bit of a loser. I was overweight. I was seeing off pints. I was just a loser. I just looked myself in the mirror and said: ‘You're better than this’.”

Asked to compare his game with Federer’s, Willis smiled. “Is he just a little bit better than me? I didn't think I'd be answering these questions in a million years. He's a complete player. He's a legend of the game. I've got a lot of respect for him. But I've got to go out and try to beat him.”

Had he ever spoken to Federer? “I don't think I have. I don't think he was at the Tunisia Futures this year.”

When asked about the prospect of playing the world No 3, Willis joked: “I’m not sure he can play on grass. It’s an amazing dream come true. I get to play on a stadium court. This is what I dreamed of when I was younger.”

Federer said he had followed Willis’ progress with interest. “I think it’s been one of the best stories in our sport for a long time,” he said. “These are the kind of stories we need in our sport. I’m very excited to be playing him actually.”

There could be no doubt that Willis deserved his first-round victory. He describes his own game as “unorthodox” and his mixture of slices and spins did for Berankis.

Marcus Willis jumps into the crowd after his victory (Getty)

The Briton enjoyed noisy support from a group of supporters in one corner, who were mostly tennis players who have grown up with him. Some of them took their shoes off and waved them in the air.

Willis said he could not explain why they were doing that. “They wanted me to take my shoes off,” he said. “I put a shoe in the air, as well. I joined along with it. It keeps me relaxed, to be honest.”

Earlier this year Willis was planning to move to a coaching job in Philadelphia but was persuaded to stay in Britain by his girlfriend. “I do what I’m told,” Willis said. Instead he has been coaching at a club in Warwick, where he charges £30 an hour. Would it be difficult to go back to that work? “No. Easy. I like a lot of variation in my life. Different scenery. It keeps me grounded.”

Willis said that during his run here he had followed the same routine every evening. “I’ve been staying in the same hotel and eating the same meal every night,” he said. “Tomato, pepper pasta with added chicken. Really interesting. It’s killing me a little bit, but I’m going to keep doing it.”

The Briton, who lives at home with his parents (“living the dream”), said he had been checking out of his hotel every morning. “I’m not a heavy favourite for any match I've been playing,” he said.

He said he had received many messages from well-wishers. “It’s kicking off,” he said. “They're all lovely messages. I haven’t seen any haters. I’m sure someone has lost a bet Berankis – ‘I’m a loser. I should die.’ But everybody has been supportive.”

Nine years ago Willis was sent home from the Australian Open junior event for disciplinary reasons by the Lawn Tennis Association, which had funded his trip. Having been previously warned for bad behaviour, Willis continued to infuriate LTA staff with his lackadaisical attitude. The final straw came when he missed the bus to a practice session and then arrived without his rackets, having left them at his hotel.

Willis was asked whether he wondered at the time whether he had blown his long-term chances “No, I didn’t,” he said. “I thought: ‘ I’m going to be back here next year. It's not a problem.’ I thought I’d be OK. I didn’t realise how much hard work would have to be put in. I just learned that in the last few years.”

The Willis fans enjoy their man's victory (Getty)

Willis said that three or four years ago he would have agreed with those who suggested that despite his talent he lacked the drive and the discipline to succeed but insisted: “Behind the scenes I’ve been working very, very, very hard. When I was a junior, I was talented. I was bigged up a lot. Then I got dropped in the real world. I played Futures in Romania, losing, and lost a lot of confidence. I made some bad decisions. I went out too much. My lifestyle wasn't good. I didn't have the drive.

“I found it three years ago. I worked very hard with my coach Matt Smith in Surbiton. Ridiculous times in the morning. Ran myself into the ground.”

He added: “I’m playing very, very good tennis. I've got to understand it's not going to be like this every week. The reality of the tour is that it’s brutal, cut throat. When I go back, I've got to be ready to give it a real go till I’m 30, 35.

“I want to be a top 100 tennis player. I want this week in and week out. It's going to take a lot of hard work and I've got a lot of improving to do as well.”

Willis said he had been stunned when Goran Ivanisevic has shaken his hand after his win over Berankis. “He’s my hero,” Willis said.

Another Briton with a chequered past also enjoyed a good first-round win. Dan Evans, the world No 91, who had lost his three previous matches in the main draw here, beat Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5.

Two other British men lost their first-round matches. Nicolas Mahut had too much grass-court nous for Brydan Klein, winning 7-6, 6-4, 6-4, while Alex Ward was outclassed by David Goffin, who won 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.

The two British women in action also went out. Laura Robson was beaten 6-2, 6-2 by Angelique Kerber, the Australian Open champion, and Naomi Broady lost 6-2, 6-3 to Elina Svitolina.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in