Three years ago, at an ATP Challenger event in Knoxville, TN, Marcus Willis was filmed drinking soda and eating a Snickers bar during a changeover.
This summer, without a hint of irony, the London Telegraph knighted Willis as “the everyman folk hero of British tennis.”
Through it all, Willis smiled. And then he smiled some more.
“I’m obsessed with this sport,” says the 27-year-old from Warwick, Great Britain. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was play tennis. A lot of players seem like they’re going to work when they’re on court. But if you really love what you’re doing, then why wouldn’t you smile?”
Willis’ smile was on regular display two years ago at Wimbledon. Ranked a lowly No. 772, he managed to win six matches—three pre-qualifying and three qualifying—to astonishingly reach the main draw. But he wasn’t done there. Bolstered by a British crowd that sang, chanted and roared his name, Willis upset 54th-ranked Ricardas Berankis in the first round. After the win, Willis dove into the arms of his family, friends and Jennifer, then his girlfriend and now his wife. She was the driving force behind his decision not to quit the game and move to America to become a coach.
It was “the best day of my life, other than my wedding day,” recalls Willis, whose seven-match win streak received worldwide attention, given his unlikely run and unique backstory.
It also set up a second-round match on Centre Court—against none other than Roger Federer, who admitted to being captivated by Willis’ rags-to-tennis-riches story. Though he lost in straight sets, Willis had proven that despite being nicknamed Cartman—the chunky character in the animated television series South Park—he also had the talent to compete as a serious pro.
“I admit I was out of shape, but I always had a good engine and could beat guys for a long time,” says Willis, who was ranked in the Top 15 in the world in juniors, but quit the game temporarily when he ran out of funding at age 21. “I’m not built to be a tennis player but I’ve always had the dream.”
Since that magical fortnight, Willis has struggled with a knee injury and his ranking has settled inside the 500s. He has never been ranked within the ATP Top 300, and has earned little more than $200,000 in career prize money since turning pro in 2007.
Given a wild card into the qualifying tournament of this year’s Wimbledon, Willis came one win shy of reaching the main draw. Undeterred, he put together another memorable run in doubles, teaming with countryman Jay Clarke to upset defending champions Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hughes Herbert in the second round.
“Tennis can be quite a lonely sport,” says Willis, “but I don’t want to give it up yet. I’ve always believed in myself and I don’t want to leave any stones unturned. I don’t want to look back in 10 years and wonder, ‘What if?’ I just want to work hard and make those I love proud of me.”
While Willis is back to toiling on the ITF Futures tour—through September, he had earned less than $50,000 in prize money in 2017—he is bolstered by a new sponsorship deal with a Warwick businessman that will allow him to travel to more tournaments outside of Great Britain.
At home, Willis celebrated the birth of his daughter, Martha, this past March. She joins five-year-old Hugo and four-year-old Auby, Willis’ stepsons, in a household that puts the sport—one he loves more than ever—in perspective.
“This game has brought me great happiness,” says Willis.
“I really enjoy the highs and the lows—especially the highs.”
For generations, and for generations to come, tennis has positively impacted the young and old, on and off the court, in countless ways. In this year’s Heroes special, we’ve selected 30 such stories, including a 10-year-old amputee’s life-changing moment with Roger Federer, the rebuilding of a college program after Hurricane Katrina, a former prodigy’s important message as an adult, and a 78-year-old coach’s enduring influence on the pros. Taken together, these 30 stories illustrate how people grow up, grow as individuals and grow old with tennis—the sport of a lifetime. Click here for more Heroes stories.