LONDON — How much money might you be willing to pay for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play tennis against Roger Federer on Centre Court at Wimbledon?
Or merely for the chance to emerge from the tunnel leading out to the green grass there and hear the full-throated yells of nearly 15,000 standing, clapping spectators pulling for you?
Or, perhaps best of all, for the chance to look up at a guest box and see your parents, sister, brother and cousin leaping out of their seats, rejoicing, after you conjured up a beautifully curled lob that floated over the man considered by many to be the sport’s greatest player in history and landed in to win a 14-stroke exchange?
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Marcus Willis, who lives at home with Mom and Dad and works as a tennis instructor at a club in central England, got to experience all of that and more Wednesday, and it didn’t cost the 25-year-old a dime. Actually, Willis earned the biggest paycheck of his career despite winding up with the sort of result everyone expected when a guy ranked 772nd in the world somehow found himself across the net from the man who spent more weeks at No. 1 than anyone: a 6-0, 6-3, 6-4 victory for Federer in the second round at the All England Club.
Roger Federer (right) and Marcus Willis at the net after their match.
"I did look up twice as I bounced the ball, and saw Roger Federer, and thought, `Oh, haven’t seen this before,’" Willis said. "Yeah, it was surreal. … I had to get used to it and play."
He earned the right to be out there against the 17-time Grand Slam champion thanks to an improbable, straight-from-a-screenplay couple of weeks that included victories in three matches during a playoff for low-ranked British players, three more in the qualifying rounds at Wimbledon, and then another Monday in his very first tour-level match.
"It’s all been incredible and a bit of a blur," said Willis, a left-hander with a strong serve who slices shots off both wings. "I’ve gone from one extreme to the other in a matter of days."
Willis, who charges about $40 per hour for lessons, truly became an overnight sensation. His girlfriend — who, in keeping with the Hollywood nature of the whole episode, recently persuaded him not to give up on his dream of being a regular on the professional tour — was interviewed on the BBC. So were his family members. His loud group of supporters, who led rowdy chants that reverberated under the closed roof at the generally staid venue, got the TV treatment, too.
"I said a few days ago: This story is gold," Federer said. "He’s got a career after this. He definitely made the most of it."
Federer’s career prize money is just shy of $100 million, and that doesn’t include plenty from endorsement deals. Willis entered Wimbledon with about $350 this year and less than $100,000 for his career in prize money — and, needless to say, zero endorsements. On Wednesday, Willis’ white shirt, which he bought about a year ago, was made by Federer’s apparel sponsor and had the gray initials "RF" etched on the left sleeve.
On another rain-filled day that left a dozen men still unable to complete their first-round matches while No. 3 Federer and No. 1 Novak Djokovic moved into the third, Willis stepped out on court with a wave and the widest smile imaginable, shaking his head at the scene.
Novak Djokovic after playing a shot.
He found other reasons to grin and revel in the moment. That shot in the third game that even Federer applauded and allowed Willis to boast with a chuckle later: "I can say, `I lobbed Roger Federer.’" A 113 mph ace Willis celebrated with arms raised. A forehand winner that finally, a half-hour and more than a set in, gave Willis his first game — and created pandemonium in the stands.
More often, of course, things did not go his way. Willis, who leaves with a check for 50,000 pounds (about $67,000), would produce a genuinely impressive shot, only to see Federer top it, including with several no-look, over-the-shoulder volleys. Here’s guessing that Willis’ opponents in local leagues do not wield a racket quite the way Federer can.
"You can’t leave the ball anywhere short or high. It’s just gone," Willis said. "He’s just ridiculous."
Willis, it turns out, made an impression on Federer, too.
"As I was playing," Federer said, "I was thinking … `This is definitely one of the matches I’ll remember.’"
Imagine, then, how Willis felt about the 1 hour, 25 minutes they spent together on the world’s most famous tennis court.
"Not my standard Wednesday, that," everyman’s everyman said at the end of it all. "Next Wednesday might be quite different."