Wimbledon 2016: Fairytale continues, as Willis sets dream match against Federer

British qualifier Marcus Willis seals a brilliant victory over world number 54 Ricardas Berankis at Wimbledon 2016

By any measure, the story that had unfolded over the last couple of weeks for Marcus Willis was an extraordinary one.

He was a qualifier, but not just a qualifier. With an overall ranking of 775, he was the 23rd ranked Briton and an unfamiliar face around the tennis tour. The reason being that he had never played either a Grand Slam or main tour match as he plied the Futures and Challenger circuit.

A big man of 6ft 3in and 200lbs, his career prize money at the age of 25 had not yet reached $100K. Just to keep playing, he was doing part-time jobs on the side and still living with his parents. He was close to throwing in the towel, but hung on a little longer with the encouragement of his girlfriend.

Now, at of all places Wimbledon, the reward and the recognition had arrived. For no, he was not just a qualifier: He had to come through LTA qualifying rounds even to earn a place in qualifying proper. It got him his debut appearance at Wimbledon—plus headlines and now a huge following.

Just getting this far had brought won him £30K, and one more win would turn that into £50K—riches enough for a little longer on the tour. But there was another reward ahead: a chance to play seven-time champion Roger Federer.

Murray, who knows Willis from Davis Cup, put it into some kind of context.

“He pretty much stopped playing, then was coaching. So to then go to prequalifying last minute, get through to qualifying… with the potential to play Roger, yeah, it would be an amazing story.”

First, though, as the lowest ranked man in the Championships, he had to beat Ricardas Berankis, ranked 54. But the man from Lithuania had also been playing a lot of Challengers, though with considerably more success than Willis, and had not won a main-tour match since February.

In short, if Willis had the legs and the stamina after getting this far, he had a chance. But whether he won or not, he was revelling in every second of this experience. He may have been scheduled on the outside Ct17, but it was packed to the gunnels with chanting, singing Britons, as was every walkway around the court. It was nothing short of a party, and Willis, all smiles, had come to play.

He broke in the first game, held though a pulsating first set, and for good measure, broke to take the set, 6-3.

In the second, he got the first break to go 3-1, but this time, Berankis hit back through a gruelling fifth game. Willis was not fazed, though, and broke again, serving out the set, 6-3.

The crowd became ever louder, ever more enthused, but Berankis maintained his focus. Yet again, though, it was Willis who made the early breakthrough, in the fifth game, survived deuce for 4-2, and then fought off three break points and numerous deuces for 5-3. Could he keep it tight in serving out the biggest win of his career? Two screaming forehand winners down the line suggested he could, and one last big serve finished the job.

His arms went aloft, the court rose to its feet, the noise reverberated around the All England Club.

Already Federer was in action barely 50 metres away on Centre Court. He had to keep up his end of the bargain to ensure that the Willis fairytale continued.

It was far from a foregone conclusion, despite Federer’s record Grand Slam and grass court credentials. Winning seven titles from 10 finals at Wimbledon is unparalleled, and the same is true of his record 15 grass titles. He has more match-wins on grass and at Wimbledon than anyone in the Open era. However, he did not arrive for his 18th appearance here in the tip-top condition after a tough season of injury and illness, what he himself called, “a brutal last few months.”

Since reaching the semis of the Australian Open, he had played only four tournaments, including two grass events in Stuttgart and Halle, but at both he was unquestionably rusty, and lost in the semis against two of the most talented young players on the tour: Wimbledon’s No8 seed Dominic Thiem and first-time Wimbledon seed Sascha Zverev.

Federer thus arrived at Wimbledon without a title for the first time since 2001, was still mis-timing balls, and a little off his usual pace.

Even so, Guido Pella, ranked 52, should not have caused him too many problems: The Argentine had yet to win a tour-level grass match in his career. The left-hander, though, really tested the Swiss right from the word go. Federer had two break points in the eighth game but in the end, it went to a tie-break, where he ran out to a 6-2 lead, only to be pegged back to 6-5. A forehand winner nabbed the set, 7-6(5).

Pella was doing a good job of pulling Federer to the net, lobbing him, and passing him down the line. Federer again passed up numerous break chances in a 12-minute opening game in the second set, and again they went to a tie-break. Federer edged that too, 7-6(3).

For the third set, it was time to put on an under-vest—for warmth, for his back, who knows? But having failed to convert eight break points thus far, he eventually converted a ninth in the eighth game with a forehand down the line, and served out this tough match to love with an ace.

So the dream contest is set, and Federer knew of Willis’s antics: “Yes I was very intrigued by the story. It’s what our sport needs sometimes. I’m really looking forward to playing against him, couldn’t be more happy. It’s a huge moment for him. For me, too: I’m still on the way back as well.”

He was cagey about his physical shape, as one would expect: “It felt great to be back here, so happy, have worked so hard for it… We’ll see if I’m fully fit, no-one knows—even me!”

As for Willis, he carried his joy into the media room, with a smile and a touch of disbelief: “Six months to a year ago, not very confident, to be honest. Kept getting injured. Tore my hamstring twice. Hurt my knee earlier this year. Had a bit of a rough phase. I was down, struggling to get out of bed in the morning… Playing a bit better, aren’t I? I’ve got some confidence behind me. But I’m still quite grounded. I still need to improve.”

And what of facing Federer?

“I’m not sure he can play on grass. [Smiling] That’s good. No obviously 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. I’m going to go out there and try to win the tennis match. I probably won’t. I might not. But I’m going to give everything, as I have the last seven matches.”

Don’t miss it. The emotions, whatever the outcome, will be sky high.

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