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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Marcus Willis and the real charms of pro tennis

The story of English tennis player Willis is far closer to the everyday reality of the pro game than the glamour match-ups we read every day

The sports story of the week had to be a man called Marcus Willis. Especially after the wrenching Brexit vote and the possibly even more wrenching football loss to Iceland in the Euros, England must have been yearning for some good news. And in the somewhat stocky form of Willis, they got it. He was only the latest in a line of Englishmen turned into heroes despite—or maybe because of—losing.

The greatest name there is probably Robert Scott, who died on his way back from the South Pole. Given how much Scott and his men struggled against extreme Antarctic conditions, it is cruel to describe their achievement and ultimate tragedy as “losing". But in their race to the South Pole that captured the world’s attention a century ago, Norway’s Roald Amundsen did get there first. Still, Britain famously adores its tragic heroes, and that’s why Scott is so beloved there.

Of course, Willis’s Wimbledon tennis story cannot compare with Scott’s tragedy in any meaningful way. Still, consider what this 772nd-ranked tennis player in the world accomplished once he decided he wanted at least a shot at playing on Wimbledon’s grass courts.

Reality set in quickly. First of all, he was seriously overweight for top-flight tennis. So, he trained hard and lost more than 20kg. But perhaps more seriously, his ranking was too low to get him an automatic entry into the Wimbledon draw. There are only 128 slots in the draw, after all. Ideally, they would be filled by the top 128 players in the world, according to their ranks. But 16 places are reserved for lower-ranked players who make it through Wimbledon’s qualifying tournament.

That’s how Willis made it to Wimbledon, via those qualifiers. But not even saying that captures the full extent of his journey. Not only was he ranked too low for an automatic entry into Wimbledon, he was ranked too low for the qualifiers as well. But wait, not even saying that captures the full extent... you get the picture. He was ranked too low for the Wimbledon pre-qualifiers too. He only got to play the pre-qualifiers because another British player, Scott Clayton, couldn’t make it back from Turkey in time to sign in.

So, here’s what Willis did in the two weeks prior to Wimbledon. In the pre-qualifiers, the 25-year-old beat three players to win a slot in the qualifiers. In the qualifiers, his first match was against the fourth seed, Japan’s Yuichi Sugita. Willis started poorly, getting hammered 6-1 in the first set. But he wasn’t discouraged, overpowering Sugita 6-4, 6-1 the rest of the way. That earned him a match against a talented 18-year-old Russian, Andrey Rublev. Willis took that match fairly comfortably, 7-5, 6-4.

One more win and he would be in Wimbledon proper! Perhaps that overwhelming thought got to him as he began the last match of the qualifiers. Once again, he lost the first set, 6-3, to another Russian, Daniil Medvedev. But like against Sugita, Willis wasn’t discouraged. He won the next two sets and raced to 5-2 in the fourth. So close, and maybe the nerves got to him again. Serving for the match, Willis was broken. But he collected himself and finished off the match two games later.

Stop for a moment to understand what Willis had accomplished as Wimbledon began last Monday. Though he had been ranked as high as 322 in the world in July 2014, he was now ranked 772. He had never once played in a Grand Slam tournament.

Throughout his career, his circuit has been largely the ITF Futures tournaments, the lowest rung of men’s pro tennis. Their total prize money is $10,000 or $15,000 (compare, if you like, to Wimbledon’s purse of about $40,000,000). Willis did occasionally play one rung up from there, in the ATP Challenger tournaments, like the one he played in Tunisia in January. The prize money in those events varies from $40,000 to $200,000.

And while Willis had won about $95,000 in prize money over his nine-year tennis career, in recent months, the money had slowed to a trickle. In all of 2016, says the ATP website, tennis had brought him just $292. (That’s right, two hundred and ninety-two dollars).

This was what Willis took into his Wimbledon first-round match against Ricardas Berankis, ranked 54 in the world. In handily beating Berankis, Willis assured himself of more than $65,000.

It was hardly a surprise that Willis lost his second-round match; he played Roger Federer, after all. But especially in the second and third sets, it was a competitive match showcasing some excellent grass-court tennis. Watch the highlights to see his fine lefty serve, the way he can vary pace and depth on his strokes, his wicked backhand slice and some astute volleying. This is a player who belongs not in the distant 700s, but in at least the top 100 of the rankings. I hope he will work to pull himself up there.

All in all, a terrific Wimbledon story. And yet, for me, the best part of it is that stories like his are far closer to the everyday reality of professional tennis than the glamour match-ups we read about daily.

I mean, there’s no doubt that Djokovic and Federer, Muguruza and Kerber all play fabulous tennis. They deserve all the attention they get. But this man Marcus Willis also plays fabulous tennis. Find and watch him and others like him on those lower rungs of the pro game, as they fight hard every day to climb the ladder.

You will see them closer at hand than the big names. You will see some finely honed skills. And you won’t be sorry.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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