Wimbledon 2016: This story is gold, says Federer after beating heroic Willis
Seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer eases to a straight sets victory over world no772 Marcus Willis
In truth, everything was stacked against the 25-year-old man from Slough, Marcus Willis, who was taking tennis by storm at Wimbledon this week.
First there was the astronomic ranking difference between No772 in the world and Roger Federer’s No3.
Then there was the fact that he had already played seven matches to get here: three pre-qualifying, three qualies, and his first-ever match-win on the main tour.
Not for Willis the millions in prize money and sponsorship, the familiarity with every corner of this venue. He still lived at home with his parents because even with part-time coaching work, he could not afford to move out.
Federer was more familiar with each blade of grass on the biggest stage in tennis than anyone in the world: Willis had never played here, never experienced a crowd like this, let alone a home crowd.
As if to hit one last nail in the Briton’s coffin, it rained. And that meant they would play under the roof, indoors: Federer’s two favourite environments in one.
But if there was one thing working in Willis’s favour, it was the crowd. The Briton had been making headlines since he came through qualifying, and there had been a frisson all day at the prospect of his match against the best grass court player that tennis has to offer.
Federer, so popular everywhere he plays, but especially so on London’s famous lawns, cannot have faced such a barrage of support for his opponent for many years, but it was not just Willis’s tennis story that engaged: He is a likeable, witty, fun character into the bargain, and he was relishing every moment.
The crowd, naturally, embraced him as he led Federer onto court, cheered him during warm-up, cheered each point he won—and he played up to it with aplomb.
His coach, talking to BBC radio, explained, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, that he and Willis had prepared five pages of notes on how to play the match. As a left-hander, he was able to follow the Nadal lead of pounding cross-court to the Federer single-handed backhand. Willis mixed things up with slice and unconventional angles. He played cute drop shots followed by high lobs, all over the backhand side, of course.
Perhaps he, like many others, thought there may be some residual tightness in the Federer back, and certainly the repeated forward sprints, the back-pedalling for high smashes, and diving wide to pick up some big serves, would have tested his physical shape.
Federer, though, had also been checking out Willis’s game, and admitted afterwards that he had watched much of the Briton’s opening match.
“I felt very well prepared… My approach going into the match was that I was playing a top‑50 guy, because that’s how he is now, after this particular week. He’s beaten a top‑60 guy. He’s qualified. He’s on a run. He’s feeling good. He’s from here.”
Put like that, perhaps there were plenty of things in Willis’s favour.
His problem was that Federer came out determined to get a quick, strong start. Willis worked hard to fend off the attack in his first service game, but Federer got to the net to convert the fourth break point.
The drop-lob combo worked a treat for the Briton in the next game, and the crowd roared him on when he got a break-back point. Federer held, but the 13 minutes on the clock showed how long the rallies were taking.
However, Federer was not about to give anything away, broke again, aced twice, and went to 5-0 with a high backhand volley finish and, after a few more break points came and went, the Swiss broke again, 6-0.
Into the second set, and Willis held his first service game and the carnival atmosphere erupted. He then went 30-0 on Federer’s serve—cue more celebration—but four straight points and Federer had held. He would serve to love for the remainder of the set, broke after another tussle in the sixth game, and with 52 minutes on the clock, took a two sets lead, 6-3.
Federer admitted afterwards that Willis had got stronger with each set, and he certainly pressed the Swiss through the third. He worked another break point in the sixth game, but could not convert and with perfect Swiss timing, Federer went on to break him in the ninth. He served it out with some precision serving, and jogged to the net to greet his beaming opponent.
In a final touch of class, Federer took his seat and packed, leaving the stage and ovation to Willis: It was an emotional moment. Whether the Briton will ever again better walking from Centre Court, side by side with someone of Federer’s standing, who knows?
The Swiss had nothing but praise for his opponent—as his smiles both on and off court showed. He recalled that the last time he had less support than today was “probably back in ‘99 when I got the wild card in Court 8, lost in five sets… There wasn’t much clapping going on! [But] I thought I got my fair share of support. He deserved more. He deserved more in the bigger moments. He played some great points. He fought hard. Great personality for a Centre Court like this. I must tell you, it’s not easy for him as well just to come out there and play a decent match. There’s a lot of pressure on him as well. I thought he handled it great.”
Willis would be an hour longer coming to press—no doubt the after effects of an unparalleled week of tennis, physically and emotionally, though he admitted the celebratory bottle of beer in locker room had gone down very well.
Federer, before he left, spoke direct to the British media:
“I said a few days ago, this story is gold. I just hope the press respects his situation. It’s easy now to just use it, chew it up and then throw it all away. He’s got a life after this. He’s got a career after this. He definitely made the most of it. He enjoyed it.”
So did we all.