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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Britain's Marcus Willis, ranked No. 772 in the world, celebrates his stunning 54th-ranked Ricardas Berankis 6-3 6-3 6-4 on Day 1 at Wimbledon on Monday. (Adam Davy/PA via AP)

    London — Marcus Willis originally was scheduled to spend Monday teaching tennis to a group of 5-to-10-year-old kids, among others, at the Warwick Boat Club in central England.

    Instead, Willis wound up with grander, and more lucrative, plans: playing — and winning! — a match at Wimbledon.

    And on Wednesday, Willis' students will need to find a substitute yet again, because he will be busy at the All England Club, standing across the net from Roger Federer in the second round.

    Quite surreal, to choose the pitch-perfect word Willis used more than once to describe the series of events that brought him to this point. He is, after all, a 25-year-old with admittedly something of a beer gut who resides with his parents who makes about $40 an hour for giving tennis lessons when he's not competing at local club tournaments, is ranked 772nd and never had played a tour-level match until Monday.

    His 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over 54th-ranked Ricardo Berankis before a wildly supportive and singing crowd of fellow Brits at tiny Court 17 was one of the most intriguing developments on Day 1 of the grass-court Grand Slam tournament. There were ho-hum straight-set victories for past champions like Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Venus Williams, for example, and a half-dozen exits by lower-seeded players.

    Willis made news, becoming the worst-ranked qualifier to reach the second round at any major since No. 923 Jared Palmer at the 1988 U.S. Open.

    "One of the best stories in a long time in our sport," Federer, who beat Guido Pella 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-3 in his return to Grand Slam tennis after missing the French Open with a bad back, said.

    As a teen, Willis appeared to be an up-and-coming junior, reaching the third round of the Wimbledon boys' tournament in 2007 and 2008, but injuries and what he describes as a lack of dedication derailed his career.

    "I was a bit of a loser. I was overweight," he said. "I just looked myself in the mirror (and) said, 'You're better than this.'"

    He says he was close to abandoning hope of a pro career, considering a move to Philadelphia to teach tennis, when his new girlfriend told him to keep trying to play.

    "I met the girl. She told me not to (quit), so I didn't," Willis said with a smile. "Do what I'm told."

    Fast-forward to this month, when he was the last man invited to participate in a playoff for British players to earn a wild card into Wimbledon qualifying. Willis won three matches there, then another three in qualifying to get into the main draw.

    And then the left-handed serve-and-volleyer defeated Berankis by saving 19 of 20 break points and hitting 14 aces while using what he describes as an "unorthodox" mix of spins. Afterward, Willis raced to the stands to kiss his girlfriend before being swallowed by a group hug from a bunch of longtime friends.

    By getting to the second round, Willis is guaranteed at least 50,000 pounds (about $65,000). Not bad for someone whose prize money in 2016 had been about $350 — and that figure includes singles and doubles.

    His career earnings when he arrived at Wimbledon were under $100,000.

    Next up is Federer, whose record 17 Grand Slam titles include a record-tying seven at the All England Club.

    "I get to play on a stadium court. This is what I dreamed of when I was younger. I'm going to go out there and try to win the tennis match. I probably won't. I might not."

    Sure. But given all that's gone on for Willis lately, who's to say?

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