By Howard Fendrich
AP Tennis Writer
LONDON — Marcus Willis originally was scheduled to spend Monday teaching tennis to a group of 5-to-10-year-old kids, among others, at Warwick Boat Club in central England.
Instead, Willis wound up with grander, and more lucrative, plans: playing — and winning! — a match at Wimbledon.
And on Wednesday, Willis’ students will need to find a substitute yet again, because he will be busy at the All England Club, standing across the net from none other than Roger Federer in the second round.
Now there’s something to brag about to friends: “The guy who coaches me is playing Federer at Wimbledon.”
Quite surreal, to choose the pitch-perfect word Willis used more than once to describe the series of events that brought him to this point. He is, after all, a 25-year-old with admittedly something of a beer gut who resides with his parents — “Living the dream,” Willis joked — makes about $40 an hour for giving tennis lessons when he’s not competing at local club tournaments, is ranked 772nd and never had played a tour-level match until Monday.
His 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over 54th-ranked Ricardo Berankis before a wildly supportive and singing crowd of fellow Brits at tiny Court 17 was by far the most intriguing development on Day 1 of the grass-court Grand Slam tournament. There were ho-hum straight-set victories for past champions Federer, Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams, for example, and a half-dozen exits by lower-seeded players.
Willis truly made news, becoming the worst-ranked qualifier to reach the second round at any major since No. 923 Jared Palmer at the 1988 U.S. Open.
“One of the best stories in a long time in our sport,” said Federer, who beat Guido Pella 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-3 in his return to Grand Slam tennis after missing the French Open with a bad back.
Willis’ take on his surprising success: “This doesn’t happen, really.”
So how DID it happen?
As a teen, Willis appeared to be an up-and-coming junior, reaching the third round of the Wimbledon boys’ tournament in 2007 and 2008, but injuries and what he describes as a lack of dedication derailed his career.
“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,” Willis said.
“I was a bit of a loser. I was overweight,” he said. “I just looked myself in the mirror (and) said, ‘You’re better than this.’”
He says he was close to abandoning hope of a pro career, considering a move to Philadelphia to teach tennis, when his new girlfriend told him to keep trying to play.
“I met the girl. She told me not to (quit), so I didn’t,” Willis said with a smile. “Do what I’m told.”
Fast-forward to this month, when he was the last man invited to participate in a playoff for British players to earn a wild card into Wimbledon qualifying. Willis won three matches there, then another three in qualifying to get into the main draw.
And then the left-handed serve-and-volleyer defeated Berankis by saving 19 of 20 break points and hitting 14 aces while using what he describes as an “unorthodox” mix of spins. Afterward, Willis raced to the stands to kiss his girlfriend before being swallowed by a group hug from a bunch of longtime friends.
By getting to the second round, Willis is guaranteed at least 50,000 pounds (about $65,000). Not bad for someone whose prize money in 2016 had been about $350 — and that figure includes singles and doubles.
His career earnings when he arrived at Wimbledon were under $100,000.
“I’ve got to understand it’s not going to be like this every week. The reality of the tour — it’s brutal. It’s cutthroat,” Willis said. “I want to be a top-100 tennis player. I want this, week-in and week-out. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, and I’ve got a lot of improving to do as well.”
Next up is Federer, whose record 17 Grand Slam titles include a record-tying seven at the All England Club.
“I’m not sure he can play on grass,” Willis said with a perfect deadpan delivery.
Then he continued: “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.”
Sure. But given all that’s gone on for Willis lately, who’s to say?