One of the stories of the year in all of sports came in February when Matija Pecotic, the 33-year-old Director of Capital Markets for a real estate investment company, stunned former Top 10 star Jack Sock at the Delray Beach Open. The Croatian took the tennis world by storm after surging from qualifying, where he was an alternate, to the second round of the main draw.
Following from across the Atlantic Ocean was Marcus Willis, tennis’ original Hollywood script writer, who is making a comeback in doubles. In 2016, the lefty battled through Wimbledon pre-qualifying and then defeated Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev in qualifying to reach the main draw. After the World No. 772 stunned Ricardas Berankis in the first round, Willis played Roger Federer on centre court, losing in straight sets.
“I was just happy. It’s a weird thing. I was just happy for the guy more than anything. It’s nice in sport, in tennis, when stuff like this happens. A lot of guys get to 200 and don’t have that break,” Willis told ATPTour.com of Pecotic. “His life is really interesting right now.”
Pecotic climbed as high as No. 206 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings in 2015. But after suffering from a staph infection, attending Harvard Business School and the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, he traded hopes of a full-time career for a desk at the office. Willis is one of few people who can understand the whirlwind the Croatian went through in Delray Beach.
“He got significantly higher than I did in the singles rankings. So in a way, it’s not that I didn’t deserve it because I had the ability, but he really deserved that. He got lucky because he got in, but I saw that story and it took me back a little bit,” Willis said. “I think you can be misled sometimes. Certainly with my story… a lot of people sort of got the impression that I was just a random tennis coach who decided to sign up for Wimbledon one day.
“[Pecotic’s story] was kind of being spun like this guy goes to work in an office and he turned up and beat Jack Sock. Not only is that a discredit to Jack Sock, but it’s kind of a discredit to him for all the work he’s put in.”
Federer and Willis depart Centre Court after their match in 2016. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images.
After competing in two tournaments in Greece in November 2020, Willis came to the realisation that continuing on was “financially impossible”. The Briton had “lost a bit of love for the sport” and in early 2021 he announced his retirement.
Willis thought: “I’ve got a family here, I can’t keep chasing this dream anymore.”
It had not been a perfect end to his dream journey.
“Post Wimbledon I remember I played a few more tournaments that year and I got injured. I think 2018 was my last singles match, but I sort of got myself into quite a negative mindset. I kind of told myself that nothing would ever be that good again, so what’s the point? I struggled,” Willis said. “I struggled with the comedown after Wimbledon. It was difficult. I put on a load of weight, I was struggling.
“I had to go and get some help. I had to go speak to a professional. It’s something I continue to do. It’s something I stay on top of because I don’t want to venture back to where I was.”
The lefty, who is in a much better place now, turned to coaching at a local club five to six days per week. Every so often he would take a private hit in London or work a clinic and do a Q&A session to speak about his incredible run at Wimbledon and facing Federer.
That all changed at the end of 2021, when he played an exhibition a friend was holding locally.
“One of the guys watching, who is obviously now a friend, said ‘I can sponsor you to go back on Tour if you want to play,’” Willis recalled. “I didn’t need asking twice. So I had to get myself in shape, because I was a little out of shape. It’s luck again. Someone saw something in me, saw ability.”
Willis, who knew he would only play doubles, worked to return to fitness. Last July, he played his first tournament back in Roehampton as a third alternate. His first doubles title came in September in Madrid, the same week Federer announced his retirement. “The news came out and honestly I felt like crying,” Willis said.
Eight months later he is approaching the Top 300 in the Pepperstone ATP Doubles Rankings. Willis was aiming for the Top 500 by July, four months from now.
The Briton was hoping to be in range of a potential Wimbledon wild card next year. But at the rate he is going, that is not out of the question for 2023. Willis and partner Scott Duncan, who played on opposite teams in Willis’ first tournament back, have won five ITF Futures titles together.
“At the start it was really fun. It’s still fun now, but it’s serious as well. I’ve got my goals. I’ve been doing much better than I thought I would, so now I’m kind of hungrier for every match. I’m going after it,” Willis said. “I love being out there competing, it’s what I love doing.”
Ironically, Pecotic and Willis had played each other twice, in 2014 and 2015, before either man enjoyed his breakthrough.
“When Willis made his run at Wimbledon, I thought the world was thinking the same thing that I was thinking when I saw him for the first time, which was, ‘Who the hell is this recreational player and what is he doing at a professional tennis tournament.’ And it was only when he beat me in straight sets and hit about 14 aces that I realised just how incredibly talented and what a high-IQ tennis player he was,” Pecotic told ATPTour.com. “Seeing him on that run didn’t surprise me at all. I know he plays well on fast surfaces and I remember he moves very well and has a world-class serve and has an incredible backhand slice and has amazing touch and just really good sort of court awareness. It just didn’t surprise me at all.”
His own journey in Delray Beach brought back memories of Willis’ run at SW19.
“I was actually disappointed that he didn’t continue to show the world on the Tour level just how good he could be, because I really thought he had a lot more to give,” Pecotic said. “Who knows, maybe my run in Delray will inspire him to give it one more go.”
Little did Pecotic know that Willis is well on his way.
“In one way I’m very happy how things have gone, but now I’m all about the next step,” Willis said. “I’m taking it in my stride, I’m really happy with where I’m at, but I want more. I have to stop myself and realise I’ve done really well, not expect so much and just take it a match at a time. The other side of me sort of [is wanting to] get where I want to get as soon as possible.”