Wimbledon: Marcus Willis put to sword with a smile on his face

Centre Court crowd delight in British underdog’s efforts to topple a legend

He played the crowd for what it was worth. Why wouldn’t he? Boozy and boisterous, they were ready for the evening show after a dirty day in London.

Marcus Willis was nicknamed Cartman, after the character in South Park, because of the 17 stone he used to haul around as he masqueraded as a professional tennis player, shovelling in cola and chocolate bars at change overs.

The truth was the 55 pounds lighter Willis, who is ranked 772 in the world, needed everything he could get against Roger Federer in a typical Centre Court pairing of poetry and prose. Sure, it was a Wimbledon cliché but it was raucous and pure soap, more so with the roof closed. But very rarely do these matches fall into the lap of the home crowd.

With Federer involved, the Centre Court is always divided. But Willis had come across as such a self-aware, blokey, live-lover of a character over his 24 hours of fame that at the outset there was an wave of energy thrumming through the arena.


“Hold a few service games and you never know,” was the Willis pre-match script, so Federer racing to 6-0 after 25 minutes was something of a setback. The 34-year-old knew from experience to kill any momentum and he did.

Federer had to look like the player who spent a record 302 weeks as the world number one and had played in 65 consecutive Grand Slams with an 88 per cent win record at Wimbledon.

But he knew he was fighting the crowd as well and with every Willis threat to win a game, on cue they rose to their feet.

The possibility that Federer's troublesome back, which had kept him from competing at Roland Garros, would play some part, was fleetingly considered in the second set when just 31 minutes into the match Willis won his first game for 6-0, 1-1.

The 25-year-old milked it. He knew what his role was and appeared content with his script, which was to be put to the sword with a smile on his face.

But when the trainer came on at the first change-over to massage the lefty’s shoulder, the suspicion was Willis was already suffering from the quantum leap in levels.

This was a player who could be got for £30 a lesson in his Warwick tennis club. Court time was no friend and although he nicked three games with strong serving in the second set, Federer took it 6-3 to go two sets up. Just 52 minutes had passed.

One way

Few matches go entirely one way and with the third going with serve, Federer waited for his opportunity. That arrived in the ninth game, when the seven-time Wimbledon champion improved his returns and broke Willis to love.

He served out the match 6-0, 6-3, 6-4, a drained Willis finally welling up with emotion, his mum and dad hugging in the stands to end a perfect Wimbledon evening.

“He puts you under a lot of pressure,” said Willis. “He puts balls where you don’t want them. It sounds funny but I’m disappointed to lose. I went out there to win.

“The last three years I’ve been a lot better. After Wimbledon I’ve got to knuckle down. But I’ve earned myself a beer now. That was good.”

Federer was not unaware of the first-week traps of crowd-pleasers and plucky no-hopers picking around his throne. “I knew to some extent what I was getting into,” he said. “He brought some unbelievable energy. It was very refreshing to play an opponent like this, brings in the crowd and with some unbelievable shot making.

“I remember walking out against Pete for the first tie in 2001 all the nerves and pressure. My mindset going into the match was that I was playing a guy in the top 50. He’s a great personality but its not easy for him either. There was a lot of pressure on him too.”

When in 2011 Conor Niland became the first Irish-born player to reach the main draw at Wimbledon since Sean Sorensen in 1980, he faced a French player Adrian Mannarino on an outside court in the first round.

Niland lost in five sets, having led 4-1 with a double-break in the fifth set. Had he won, he would have faced then six-time champion Roger Federer in the second round on Centre Court.

Mannarino went on to lose to Federer that year and accomplished a similar feat again yesterday, falling to the world number one Novak Djokovic in the second round, again on Centre Court.

But there was little drama in the meeting, the champion efficient in his 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times