Wimbledon’s Centre Court, the most famous arena in all of tennis, will play host Wednesday to one of the greatest mismatches in the championships’ 139-year history. On one side of the net will be the most decorated player in the history of the sport, Roger Federer, winner of 17 Grand Slam titles and a record seven Wimbledon crowns. On the other will be a 25-year-old ranked 772nd in the world who has spent more time this year coaching tennis than playing in tournaments.
It is a story fit for Hollywood. Yet a win over Federer would far eclipse anything that even the 2004 movie "Wimbledon" threw up. Paul Bettany’s Peter Colt had, after all, at least once been a top player. Willis has truly come from nowhere. Like Colt, though, a female interest has played a leading role in his unlikely sprint to the spotlight. Here are five facts about the man making headlines at Wimbledon:
Willis Admits He Was Once an “Overweight Loser”
Tennis is full of examples illustrating that talent is only a small part of the equation in becoming a top player. And for much of his career, Willis looked set to be just another promising junior who lacked the work ethic to make it as a player on the unforgiving main tour.
“When I was a junior, I was talented,” he said. “I was bigged up a lot. Then I got dropped in the real world, played Futures in Romania, losing. I lost a lot of confidence, made some bad decisions, went out too much, lifestyle wasn’t good. I didn’t have the drive.”
Indeed, Willis, who was once called Cartman, after the chubby South Park character, by a heckler, readily admits that he wasn’t doing himself justice.
"I was a bit of a loser,” he added. “I was overweight. I was seeing off pints. I was just a loser. I don't know. I just looked at myself in the mirror, I said, 'You're better than this'."
His Girlfriend Persuaded Him to Give Tennis Another Shot
Having won just $95,129 in prize money over his career and seen his ranking drop 400 places in the past year, Willis was ready to give up tennis in February. Handed an offer to coach in Philadelphia, Willis was facing the end of his ambitions as a professional. But then the man from Slough, yes the same Slough depicted in "The Office," met dental surgeon Jennifer Bate at an Ellie Goulding concert.
“Yeah I did [think about giving it up],” he said. “I was adamant I was going to go to America and coach and called up someone about the visa, but I met a girl who basically told me I was an idiot and that I should keep going and I’m very grateful for her.”
Willis Had to Win Six Matches Just to Reach Wimbledon
While Federer was fine-tuning his preparations to go for an eighth Wimbledon title, Willis was fighting not just through qualifying but pre-qualifying. Indeed, even his participation into pre-qualifying, a tournament reserved for British players where the winner earns a wild card into the main qualifying draw, required a large slice of fortune. With his ranking not good enough to gain him entry, it took one player getting injured and another failing to get back to Britain in time to register for Willis’ fairytale to begin.
But he has since grabbed his opportunity with both hands. After winning three matches to make it into the main qualifying draw, he won another three, including beating Russian Daniil Medvedev, ranked more than 500 places above him, to seal his unlikely place in the first round.
He Has Already Earned by Far the Biggest Check of His Career
Willis has already pulled off a huge upset at Wimbledon, beating world No. 54 Ricardas Berankis in straight sets in the opening round. And that win netted him 50,000 pounds ($68,000), more than half of what he had previously taken in during his whole career, and just a slight improvement on his last check — $292 for a Futures event in Tunisia in January when he was ousted in the quarterfinals by the world No. 785.
Given that Willis still lives with his parents, checks out of his hotel at Wimbledon every morning and was spending eight hours a day coaching tennis, to all groups from children to seniors, the money will certainly come in handy as he looks to ensure that his Wimbledon run is no one-off. Federer, of course, has no such concerns. Indeed were the Swiss to win the title at SW19 this year, his career earnings would leap above $100 million.
He Has the Support of His Peers
Willis’ story has already become a sensation both in Britain and across the world. And even in the Wimbledon locker room, Willis’ fellow competitors have been swept up by his sudden emergence, not least British No. 1 Andy Murray.
“Amazing story, great story,” the world No. 2 said. “You don't see stories like that too often in tennis. It's really nice. Especially for it to be a British player doing it at Wimbledon is great.”
Willis is now in the tantalizing position of knowing that he is just one win away from producing perhaps the greatest upset in all of sports, bigger even than Iceland’s victory over the England at Euro 2016 on Monday. Federer is the man looking to crush the dream, and the immensely popular 34-year-old has no problem with so much support being in his opponent’s corner his time around.
“This match is different,” he said. “It's picked up on momentum. People will hear about it. People will know about it. Naturally they're going to support him rightfully so, because I think it's a very cool story myself. It's going to make the match difficult.”