It has been a great yarn – the best of this Wimbledon – but it was bound to end. And surely the fairytale of Marcus Willis, the world’s 772nd-ranked player with the girl and the shoes and the trolls who think he’s a bit chubby and the mum who was so anxious about seeing her boy play Roger Federer on the Centre Court, was going to reach its closing chapter last night?
It did, and for a horrible moment the packed crowd feared a whitewash. So they roared with relief as well as acclaim when their new hero got on the board. Beaten 6-0, 6-3, 6-4, he couldn’t do a Leicester City or indeed an Iceland. But he had the most fantastic fun, and so did everyone else.
On Monday Willis went from nowhere to everywhere thanks to a straight-sets win over a player 718 places above him and, just as important for a double-cream soppy SW19 audience, a back-story that some thought would make a good tennis-based romcom until they remembered that the film Wimbledon came out a few years ago, only it wasn’t as good as the one involving Willis.
The narrative went like this: promising youngster squanders his talent, gets bundled home from a junior tournament in Australia for breaking all the rules, plays for sweeties round Europe and eats most of them. He balloons to 17 stone, haters dub him “Cartman” after the obese kid in South Park, and he wants to jack in tennis. But he wanders into a bar after an Ellie Goulding concert and meets a girl who tells him he’s a klutz and should stick at it. He rediscovers his appetite (for tennis) and, playing in a style that Andy Murray calls “old-school” and Liam Broady reckons is “really weird”, he beats Ricardas Berankis on the opening day and, just as weirdly, his fan-club doffs its footwear in wild celebration.
So to Federer, one of the super-elite who’s earned £100 million in a gilded career while Willis’s take-home pay (and he still lives at home) for the year before Monday was £265. Our man couldn’t resist a champ’s wave as he emerged with his opponent – and he couldn’t stop smiling after that. The shoe brigade had blagged tickets and sang a football chant. His mother Cathy, whose anxiety was about Centre Court etiquette and the hope she’d appear “serene” – waved her arms in the air like she just didn’t care. All of this before the match began.
Federer held serve; Willis lost his. The late American writer and tennis obsessive David Foster Wallace, in his admiration of Federer, said watching him was “like chess on the run”. In the next game Willis – a wobbly KerPlunk! with a couple of pieces missing – had the audacity to lob the great Swiss, then turned and grinned at his family and girlfriend. Mum went mental again. At times the scene was scarcely believable. Federer was looking like the tennis god he is; Willis somewhat less so. Though it would be hugely unkind to cast Peter Kaye in any new upcoming blockbuster telling his fantastical yarn.
If it is indeed the autumn of Federer’s career then he wasn’t in the mood to allow room for an embarrassing result against such a lowly-ranked player. But this was a remarkable match-up with Federer trying to reclaim ownership of the word “serene” and Willis doing his best to tip some weirdness on the seven-times champ’s side of the net.
He bounced anxiously. He chased Federer’s shots puffy-cheeked and let others go. He overhit and undercut. But he served an ace – arms in the air again – and had a chance to get a score against his name only to boom another one into the covers.
Second game, second set, the cheers nearly ripped the roof off, Willis winning it with a steaming forehand drive. Federer, utterly and completely ruthless throughout, hit back with a beautifully-cut crosscourt backhand; Willis gave him the thumbs-up.
If any current player owns the Centre Court it’s Federer. But Willis gave the impression he’d rented it for the afternoon, or won the chance to play the superstar in a competition. He wasn’t owning the match but he bagged three more games in the second set, each of which will merit its own anecdote whenever the grandchildren come along.
In between all the slapstick, and the sentimental sighing when Willis’s shots didn’t come off, there was some delightful tennis between the unlikely pair, none more so than when Willis set himself up for another well-placed forehand to win the first game of the third set.
Willis stayed ahead, serving well, occasionally passing the master. This must have been strange for Federer: the arena where there’s normally such warm appreciation of his beautiful aesthetics hadn’t turned on him but it was definitely glorying in daftness. “This is your time!” was the shout as Willis prepared to serve at four-all – unfortunately it was Federer’s time to break. And that was that. Game, set and match to Federer; Rag, Tag and Bobtail for Willis. He slouched towards the net and into the arms of his world-class conqueror. He half-staggered to his chair while the crowd showed their appreciation of a very British, very heroic failure. With one last wave he picked up one of the cherished Wimbledon towels as a souvenir, then walked off, unaware he’d dropped it behind him.