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Wednesday, 29 June 2016 21:43 PM BST
Thoughts from Day 3: A streak of summer lightning
How world No.772 turned Centre Court into a novelty throwback READ MORE

“It’s been surreal, so I might as well enjoy it,” Marcus Willis said before walking on to Centre Court with Roger Federer on Wednesday.

The world’s 772nd-best male tennis player had found just the right word to describe what he did to Wimbledon for 85 minutes. 

It was, at first, surreal to see someone normal-looking - ie a player not in the sleekest physical condition imaginable - facing off against someone as beyond-normal as Federer in the second round of The Championships.

Willis’s weight loss and improved conditioning over the last three years have been well documented, but he was still a little heavier and a little slower than every other ATP player we see on that court. Willis was, in other words, someone the rest of us could look at and understand.

Like Willis, we would have spent the warm-up gaping, grinning, and guffawing with the people in our player box. Like him, we would have been too nervous to keep even the simplest of shots in the court through the first set.

Like him, when we finally did win a game, we probably would have lifted our arms above us as if we had just won the calendar-year Grand Slam. Like him, we might have donned a Nike Roger Federer shirt, that we had bought at our local pro shop, for the occasion. And when it was over, we might have said, as Willis did, “I’ve earned myself a beer, I think.”

It’s one of the best stories in a long time in our sport

- Roger Federer

But there was something else, other than the novelty of his presence, that was surreal about the 25-year-old Willis, who as a junior was once ranked in the top 20 in the world: His game.

His thoughtfully spinny style is at once a throwback, a circus act, and a Fabrice Santoro impersonation. 

As with the little French magician, Willis never passed up an opportunity to hit the surprising shot when a standard one would have done.

On his backhand side, he carved under the ball for slice and sidespin; on his forehand side he came around, rather than over, it and sent it hooking cross court. With short balls and drop volleys, he made use of the whole court, rather than just the baseline. The top spin lob winner he sent up in the first set brought a smile to Federer’s face.

Like many players before the era of high-tech rackets and blink-and-you-missed-it forehands, Willis specialises in the delicate. The only problem is that he struggles with the flat and top spin drives that are the bread and butter of top-level tennis today; his kind of creativity isn’t in vogue right now. Still, Willis’s game is one that Federer, himself a throwback to the 20th century, could appreciate.

“He brought an unbelievable energy,” Federer said of Willis after his 6-0, 6-3, 6-4 win over the Englishman. “With the fans, his game, and his personality.”

“It’s one of the best stories in a long time in our sport,” Federer said before the match. “This is the kind of story we need.”

It seemed to be a story that Great Britain needed. The tale of Marcus Willis came along at just the right time. His sad litany of “bad decisions,” squandered potential, and overeating was one that many of us could identify with. And even if you don’t, like Willis, still live with your parents, his vow to “work my butt off” and do something about it and succeed was an inspiration.

In recent years, these Cinderella stories have tended to happen at the US Open, and have tended to involve teenage girls. Melanie Oudin, Vicky Duval, CiCi Bellis came out of nowhere to shock the world for a day, or a week, and then vanish as quickly as they arrived. They’re like summer lightning, and lightning rarely strikes twice.

The best we can do, as Willis said before he walked onto Centre Court, is enjoy them for as long as they last. While we watch the Grand Slams to see the long-running sagas of great champions like Roger Federer, these events wouldn’t have the same flavour without overnight sensations like Marcus Willis. They bring us the substance, and the flash, too.

Will lightning fail to strike twice for him, too? Possibly. Probably. Like those inspirational stories we watch at the Olympics every four years, we may not remember Willis’s surreal run to Centre Court a year from now. But we should.

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