Sports

Marcus Willis, Wimbledon’s Everyman of yesteryear who played Roger Federer, returns in doubles

LONDON — Marcus Willis, the Everyman’s everyman who faced Roger Federer at Centre Court while ranked 772nd in 2016, was back at Wimbledon on Thursday, competing in men’s doubles and hoping he might get to have a bit of a reunion with the now-retired eight-time champion at the All England Club.

Willis had not competed at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament since a run to the third round of doubles in 2017 alongside Jay Clarke. They renewed their partnership this time thanks to a wild-card entry and bowed out in the first round with a 6-4, 6-2 loss to Max Purcell, the 2022 Wimbledon doubles champion, and Jordan Thompson.

“I’ve got fond memories here, and when I got the wild card, I was pretty emotional about that,” said Willis, a 33-year-old from Britain. “Next step for me is trying to win matches at this level and trying to keep improving. And I feel like I am.”

Eight years ago, in something ripped straight out of a screenplay, Willis — once a promising junior — was living at home with his parents and earning $40 an hour giving lessons at tennis clubs. He won three matches in a playoff for low-ranked British players to get a berth in Wimbledon qualifying rounds, where he picked up another three victories — including against 2021 U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, now a mainstay in the ATP’s top 10 — to make it all the way to the main draw at the oldest major.

A first-round win put him into a matchup against Federer. Willis lost that one 6-0, 6-3, 6-4, but those 1 hour, 25 minutes against one of the greats of the game on the most hallowed court in the sport will forever remain in his mind and heart.

“I mean, 2016 — it was a whirlwind. Within two weeks, I was signing up for pre-quallies, almost not getting in. And then two weeks later, you’re playing Roger Federer on Centre Court. Looking back, it feels like a lifetime ago,” Willis said. “Since then, I’ve had a lot of life events. I only play doubles now. It feels like a lifetime ago, but in those three weeks, I achieved more than I ever did.”

Told that Federer also was on site Thursday, as a spectator, Willis smiled and said: “Oh, bless him. It would be nice to see him. I’m still starstruck.”

Willis announced his retirement during the coronavirus pandemic, when playing opportunities were limited. He recalled reaching the quarterfinals at a low-level doubles event with partner Billy Harris and walking away with 40 euros (about $40) in prize money.

“I thought, ‘It’s just not sustainable,’” he said.

“I didn’t really want to retire. … But when you’ve got to provide for a family, it’s something you have to do,” explained Willis, who said he has four children. “I wasn’t really resentful, as such. It’s just something I had to do. It wasn’t like I was miserable about it. It was just something at the time, I was like, ‘Well, I can’t do it. And that’s life. I’ve had some moments in my career that were great, and it’s time to move on.’”

Eventually, he found someone to offer financial support so he could afford to travel to tournaments and began playing doubles again two years ago. He’s at No. 96 in the doubles rankings this week.

“I’m very proud of myself for that,” Willis said.

His next goal? Having a doubles ranking high enough that he can get into the Australian Open next January.

“These are the places I want to be, by right. I’ve got to keep working very hard,” he said. “I’ve still got improvements to make.”

Willis is also entered in mixed doubles at the All England Club with Alicia Barnett. Win their first-round match, and they could face Andy Murray and Emma Raducanu in the second.

That would be another moment in the spotlight for Willis at Wimbledon.

“My life’s been quite crazy,” Willis said. “It’s always been a little bit crazy, so I just take it in my stride and try and focus on the here and now.”

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Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

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