LONDON (AFP) – Wimbledon heavyweight champions Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were overshadowed by a new British hero on Monday (June 27) in the stocky frame of world number 706 and old folks tennis coach Marcus Willis.
World number one Djokovic cruised to an easy 6-0, 7-6 (7/3), 6-4 victory over Britain’s James Ward, comfortably demonstrating why his recent French Open triumph allowed him to pass the US$100 million prize money barrier.
That staggering sum was then put into thrilling perspective courtesy of beefy 25-year-old Willis, nicknamed ‘Cartman’ after the South Park cartoon character and who had earned just US$65 in prize money this year before Monday.
The fairytale continues with an unlikely match-up against seven-time champion Federer and a guaranteed £50,000 (S$90,000).
Willis defeated Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania, ranked 652 places above him, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 out on a raucous Court 17 where fans sung ‘walking in a Willis wonderland’.
The club player who makes a living as a coach teaching youngsters and senior citizens tennis skills at US$30 an hour, and still lives with his parents, had been on the verge of quitting in February.
But then he met dentist Jenny Bate, who became his girlfriend, and who persuaded him to have one more shot and not go to Philadelphia where he had been offered a job as a coach.
“She told me not to go, so I didn’t. I do what I’m told,” smiled the tournament sensation.
The gamble has paid off in spectacular style for a man who is the lowest-ranked qualifier to make the second round of a major since Jared Palmer at number 923 at the 1988 US Open.
Willis was last into the pre-qualifying competition for Wimbledon, where he played three matches and then battled through three more ties to book a place in not only his first Grand Slam event but his first main tour competition.
“It’s all surreal, a little bit out of hand,” said a shell-shocked Willis.
Top seed Djokovic, who holds all four majors and is bidding for a third successive Wimbledon title, goes on to face France’s Adrian Mannarino.
A fourth Wimbledon title would make him just the second man since Don Budge in 1938 to win five straight majors. It would also put him three-quarters of the way to becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the calendar Grand Slam.
“The first nine games were flawless,” said Djokovic, who raced out into a 6-0, 3-0 lead before Ward, ranked at 177, steadied the ship.
Djokovic has won six of the last eight Grand Slams, taking him to a career tally of 12 – within two of Rafael Nadal’s mark and five behind Federer’s record.
Federer, whose last major triumph was at Wimbledon in 2012, saw off Argentina’s world number 51 Guido Pella, 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/3), 6-3. The 34-year-old’s 303rd Grand Slam singles victory moved him within three of Martina Navratilova’s record.
“I’m really excited to play against him (Willis). It’s a huge moment for him, his story his unbelievable,” said Federer.
Five-time women’s champion Venus Williams battled past Croatian teenager Donna Vekic 7-6 (7/3), 6-4. Williams, 36, is the oldest woman in the main draw and first won Wimbledon in 2000 when Vekic was just four.
The world number eight, playing in a record-equalling 71st Grand Slam, will next play Greek qualifier Maria Sakkari.
Garbine Muguruza also made the second round with a 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 win over Italy’s Camila Giorgi. The second seeded Spaniard, who was runner-up to Serena Williams in 2015, goes on to face Slovakian qualifier Jana Cepelova.
Former world number one Ana Ivanovic was knocked out, losing 6-2, 7-5 to Russian qualifier, Ekaterina Alexandrova, the world 223. Ivanovic said she was suffering a right wrist injury and won’t play again until the Rio Olympics.
Japanese fifth seed Kei Nishikori started his bid to finally make a strong run at Wimbledon with a 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 victory over Australia’s Sam Groth. Milos Raonic started with a 7-6 (7/4), 6-2, 6-4 victory over Pablo Carreno Busta in front of new coach and All England Club legend John McEnroe.
Raonic will next play Italy’s Andreas Seppi. Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, the fourth seeded German, eased past Britain’s Laura Robson 6-2, 6-2.
Ninth seed Madison Keys was a 6-3, 6-1 victor over Germany’s Laura Siegemund while Romanian fifth seed Simona Halep, a semi-finalist in 2014, beat Slovakia’s Anna Karolína Schmiedlova 6-4, 6-1.