Behind Willis Fairy Tale Lies Rising Star Jay Clarke

As night fell on the All England Club on Saturday, Marcus Willis set the Championships alight once more with another fairy tale. He and fellow Briton Jay Clarke, a wildcard entry into the event, defeated defending champions Nicolas Mahut and Pierre Hugues Herbert 3-6 6-1 7-6(3) 5-7 6-3. But while Willis will grab the headlines, let’s not forget Clarke, the rising star of British tennis that burns particularly bright.

Once upon a time, World #772 and Warwick Boat Club tennis coach Marcus Willis played seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer on Centre Court. After winning six matches to qualify and defeating #54 Ricardas Berankis in straight sets, Willis locked horns with the most decorated player of all time on his greatest stage. It was a fairy tale run that won the hearts and minds of the British public. Fast forward to 2017, and “Willbomb” is at it again, progressing to Round 3 of the men’s doubles after upsetting #2 seeds Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert.

His partner, Jay Clarke, is comparatively an unknown quantity. The Derby-born teenager has barely featured in the mainstream media–surprising considering his youthfulness and the British press’ penchant for hysterical optimism. After all, he has in fact enjoyed a meteoric rise. This time last year he was languishing at #1611 in the world, but success on the ITF circuit, most notably winning a Futures title in Turkey back in March, has seen his ranking climb to #360. Thus he is confronted with that decisive stage of a tennis player’s career–when the Challenger tour beckons, when it will be revealed whether he has both the ability and mental resolve to compete full time on the professional circuit.

His performances in Wimbledon qualifying resoundingly suggested the affirmative. After straight sets victories over Marcelo Arevalo and Elias Ymer, two players ranked more than 100 places above him, it took a two sets to love fight back from Sebastian Ofner–who ultimately reached the third round–to fell Clarke.

It was an impressive Grand Slam debut. But Clarke has since gone on to cause the biggest upset at these Championships, and has done more than simply write himself into the Willis fairy tale.. His technique has proved effective and efficient, with tidy, compact volleys of inscrutable reliability, a short backswing on both flanks enabling him to take the ball early and swiftly close the net, and a smooth service action that delivers a powerful punch. His decision-making is raw, as he often opted for ill-advised lobs when daunted by the Mahut-Herbert brick wall. But in Willis, a player whose brilliantly unorthodox shotmaking has made life so awkward for opponents throughout his career, Clarke surely has the perfect partner and teacher.

Although he may be under the tutelage of his senior compatriot, it is Clarke who provides the cool head in the partnership. Whilst Willis could hardly stem his excitement after the pair broke Herbert’s serve early in the fifth set, beating his chest and leaping in jubilation, Clarke simply clenched his fist and stared up at his box with fierce determination. This was after the duo had squandered three match points at 5-4 in the fourth set, and it is testament to their character, especially the younger, less worldly-wise Clarke, that they remained so stubbornly unperturbed.

Willis’ story last year was sensational–the fact that a portly (relative to most professional tennis players, at least) coach from Warwick could be taking on Roger Federer was wonderfully surreal. Clarke’s story is different. For those in British tennis, his displays at Wimbledon likely come as no surprise. Since the under-12 age group, Clarke has consistently been a top-ranking junior, benefiting from his father’s guidance and older brother and sister Curtis and Yasmin’s playing talents for a motivating dose of sibling rivalry. Indeed,┬ádespite the LTA’s staggering lack of financial support for Clarke, rumored to be feared┬áby his family to be a product of class and racial prejudice and inhibiting his ability to compete, he still remained #1 in Britain at under-18s and climbed to #25 in the world in that category. As impressive as Clarke’s breakthrough has been, it has arguably been a long time coming. Let’s not lump him into the Willis fairy tale narrative, but give him due recognition as a rising star of the future.

Clarke’s story may be no spellbinding fairy tale, slugging it out on the ITF circuit from Seoul to Shrewsbury, Tunisia to Tipton. But it is one which we should all start reading.

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