Start At Love

So I’m coming back down to earth after my Wimbledon ‘holiday’ – best fortnight of the year. I’ve spent two glorious weeks trying to watch sometimes as many as  three matches at a time, interspersed with long sessions of following an individual – especially magnificent – meeting of racquets, complete with my knitting, strawberries from the allotment and a box of Thorntons Continental chocolates. It has been wonderful!

What a privilege to share in the stories that have unfolded – the dreams, the aspirations and the resounding failures. To witness possibly one of the greatest quality women’s tennis matches in history – between Radwanska and Cibulkova; potentially the greatest ever women’s tennis-player – Serena Williams – equalling Steffi Graf’s record, after reading that stunning poem by Maya Angelou; the brilliance that is now Andy Murray; and the lowest-ever-ranked player in the history of Wimbledon – Marcus Willis – fulfilling a life-long dream.

I want to tell you Marcus’ story in case you don’t  know it, because in the midst of all the exuberance, enjoyment and disbelief, I suddenly found my way – found the strength, finally, to make a life-changing decision which has been trailing behind me for the past year or so – and it’s very much down to him.

Marcus is –  or was at the start of Wimbledon – ranked 772 in the world. A very talented teenager, he lost his way, made some poor decisions and had his funding withdrawn. As 2016 began, now in his mid-twenties, he’d decided to let go of his aspirations and move to America to work as a tennis coach. Then he met a girl. A very lovely girl, who chose to believe in him, and who persuaded him to have another go at making the big time. He entered Wimbledon to see what happened.

Now, entry into Wimbledon is by no means automatic. You have to either be ranked high enough (772 isn’t going to cut it!), receive a wild card (never having played on the ATP tour was going to rule that out!) or qualify (which means winning three matches back-to-back). What I hadn’t realised was that entry into Qualifying is not automatic, either. There’s a rarely-spoken-of level before that called Pre-Qualifying. It was here that Marcus’ Wimbledon story began.

Three matches in Pre-Qualifying and three matches in Qualifying – all back-to-back – meant that by the time Marcus made it to Round One, he’d already played almost the equivalent of a Grand Slam – in terms of number of matches. His reward: he got to play someone ranked roughly seven hundred and twenty places above him!

I’d spotted this story in the run-up to the tournament. Watching the coverage at Eastbourne the previous week, the draw for all the British players was flagged up and I had a strange feeling about him. Sure enough, by the end of Round One, only Marcus and two others had survived, and one of those was Andy.

I watched Marcus’ first round match and it was exhilarating. Rather than succumb to the immense odds against him, Marcus simply went out there and enjoyed himself, egged on and supported by his own version of a Barmy Army. He had no obvious expectations of winning, so merely concentrated on doing what he loved – playing great tennis. Consequently, he produced the game of his life and won in straight sets!

This time his reward was even more ridiculous – a second round match against, perhaps, the greatest tennis player ever – Roger Federer – on Centre Court! A life-long dream for him. And what a joy for all of us British fans. Determined not to be completely overwhelmed by either the setting or the player on the other side of the net, Marcus kept offering up his best. It took him until the second set to even win a  game but he never gave up. He played his little heart out from beginning to end, regardless of the score-line, and gave us – and him – a Wimbledon memory we’ll never forget.

The experience has turned his life around. With his comparatively astronomical winnings, he plans to start over with his career as a professional player, his vision of what it could be like, providing the inspiration.

And his realisation and embodiment of a dream has been my inspiration, too. I have finally welcomed the decision to relinquish my current work and become a full-time writer. To do what I love.

I recently came across a fabulous company in America (more on that in another blog, I think) whose adopted motto is: Start At Love. Given the scoring system, how thoroughly appropriate for an aspiring tennis player – and, of course, a writer.

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