June 29, 2016
Roger Federer didn’t want to spoil the script – he was as fascinated by his opponent as everyone else.
And in a way the great man really didn’t spoil anything for Marcus Willis. Even in victory, the Fed only added to the romance of the occasion.
‘Marcus had nothing to lose, he came out to enjoy himself and he did that wonderfully,’ Roger said. ‘It was a pleasure to play against him.’
It was a pleasure for all who watched this unforgettable contest. And for the British underdog, it must have been the greatest day of his life.
Willis admitted: ‘I was panicking on the big shots in the first set but then I started enjoying it out there, playing well, competing against Federer for two sets.
‘It sounds funny but I’m disappointed to lose. I’m exhausted but I’ll allow myself a beer now.’
It was a story no one would have dared make up. Marcus Willis, the world number 772, gets the chance to play on Centre Court at his home Slam, Wimbledon, against Federer, the greatest player of all time.
And he had earned it the hard way – winning six qualification matches and then his first in a Slam just to get this far.
No wonder he couldn’t stop smiling when his big moment came, laughing perhaps at his own bold decision to wear a near-identical white headband to Federer’s.
Grinning too at the near-impossibility of his task against a man still harbouring hopes of an eighteenth Grand Slam and anxious to conserve energy for more formidable foes.
As the contest began, it revolved around one burning question: not whether Willis could win the match, that was well beyond him; but could Willis win a game?
He had his chances in the first set and fluffed an opportunity to go 40-0 up in fourth game. Even at 0-5, one more point would have done it.
Instead, Federer closed out the bagel when Willis faded a backhand slice too far. It had taken just 24 minutes.
Fears of a triple bagel spread around Centre Court. But Willis raised his level right away on his first service game of the second set and led 40-0.
Back came Roger to 40-30. Then, gloriously, it happened. Willis controlled the key point and fired the winner he needed.
Pandemonium under the roof. Willis raised his arms aloft, staring over the net at Federer, loving every second of it. He was in the match at last. Could life get an any better?
The 25-year-old from Wokingham, a player described as ‘pretty old school with his serve-and-volley game’ by Andy Murray, had earned little more than £200 on the circuit all year.
So a £50,000 pay-day was more than welcome for a player whose injury problems had seen him slip down the rankings to new oblivion.
It wasn’t about money, though. This was about living the dream. As a seventeen-year-old, he had claimed he could win Wimbledon if he kept going the way he was.
Willis has had to redefine his objectives since then. And yet a showdown with the great Federer, with the whole world watching, was still the stuff dreams are made of. And he was determined to enjoy every moment.
Relaxing, Willis took another game, and might even have levelled at 3-3. But Federer was master of most rallies, however entertaining they were. The current world number three took the second set 6-3. But that was more than respectable for the spirited Brit.
At the start of the third, another dream was realised by Willis. When a Federer slice went long, Marcus The Brave led the set. He did it again to go 2-1. He was starting to compete. Still smiling. But this was getting serious.
When Willia aced Federer on the way to 3-2, he had notched up more aces than Federer – 8-7. Truly incredible under such pressure, a testament to his nerve.
In the next game, Willis had a break point to lead 4-2. Never mind a game…could Marcus win a set?
It wasn’t to be, of course. Federer closed out the match 6-4. But after that tricky first set, the world 772 had surpassed all expectations.
What a send-off he was given at the end. Marcus Willis. The Eddie The Eagle of tennis. You really couldn’t have foreseen the love Centre Court had for this unlikely hero.
This was the kind of sporting journey dreams – even movies – are made of. And what a delight this was for all who witnessed it.
Earlier, Novak Djokovic had made relatively light work of defeating birthday boy Adrian Mannarino on Centre Court.
But the world number 55 had enjoyed promising moments too, not least when he had two break points in Novak’s very first service game.
Djokovic held firm but the underdog stayed with him until they were 4-4 in the opening set.
However, serving to stay in the set, Mannarino lost two lengthy rallies and the Serb yelled in triumph as he took the set 6-4.
The world number one kept applying the pressure at the start of the second to extend his winning streak to five games in a row.
That 3-0 lead was enough of a foundation for Novak to win the set 6-3 – although to his credit, Mannarino kept battling away and even forced the great Djokovic to a third-set tie-break.
In reality, however, you just knew that Novak would step it up once more when it mattered. Mannarino fluffed a volley but then won an epic rally with an incredible drop-shot under pressure.
Novak stayed cool – even after he blew his first match point. A bruising return clinched the breaker to five, and Djokovic was home and dry.
Another happy winner on Centre Court was Agnieszka Radwanska, who was just relieved to escape the poor weather after her French Open debacle.
She said: ‘It’s good that we could play today. I’m trying to do better and better every year, it’s another year to try and hopefully do better than before.
The popular Pole’s 6-2, 6-1 victory over the Ukranian, Kateryna Kozlova was fairly stress-free and will put her in the mood for another assault on the Wimbledon title.
And over on No 1 Court Britain’s Johanna Konta progressed too, after her match against Monica Puig had been suspended overnight due to the rain.
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