From living in a van to Wimbledon debut: the unlikely rise of Billy Harris – Football News

From living in a van to Wimbledon debut: the unlikely rise of Billy Harris

How many players launch their careers out the back of a van? At this year’s Wimbledon, there may be only one. The British No 5, Billy Harris, who last week was awarded a wildcard to compete in the championships, has done it the hard way in reaching his first grand slam at the age of 29.

Ten years ago opportunities were limited. After progressing from juniors to the pro circuit, Harris lacked the cash to tackle tennis the way superstars of the game do. “At the start I didn’t have the money for flights every week,” Harris told the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) last year. “So I thought: ‘Easiest way to get around Europe is on wheels.’”

Desperate to ignite his career, Harris bunged a mattress in the back of a Ford Transit van and set off to play in Europe, armed only with his racket-stringing machine, a portable cooker and a big appetite for matches. “Some weeks in the van were obviously colder than others,” Harris said of his first foray into the grinding world of the Futures tour, the lowest level of professional tennis.

“When I was in France – the first few weeks of being in the van – it was snowing and I’d be waking up and scraping the ice off the inside. It was a wake-up call that I had to get somewhere warmer quick.”

From northern France he drove to southern Spain, then from Portugal to Poland, sleeping with his van parked in McDonald’s car parks and cooking dinner on the roadside. Back then, the Isle of Man native’s world ranking was above 1,100. Beneath the glittering surface of grand slams are thousands of players grafting to make their way up the ladder. But not everyone can afford to climb it. “It’s a big decision to make,” says Harris’s close friend Julian Cash, an ATP Tour doubles player. “It showed the belief he had in himself, the belief his family had in him. It moulded his character to what he is now. That’s why he fights so hard – nothing’s been given to him.”

Billy Harris with his van. Photograph: Instagram/@billyrh_

Earning a couple of hundred euros for each win, he had no budget for coaching. Until this year, Harris was still coached by his father, Geoff, who has no tennis background. Since February the LTA coach Colin Beecher has been assisting Harris’s training. “He’s just one of those that has kept on playing, kept plugging away, when about 80% of his age group just faded away and stopped playing tennis,” Beecher says. “But he didn’t do that. It’s a remarkable story.”

Climbing the ranks and gathering sponsors, Harris was able to shed the van in 2018 and start flying to matches with his father. After resetting from career-threatening injuries and pandemic tennis, his career accelerated. He began winning Futures tournaments in 2021, breaking into the top 500 and going up another level.

Since beating Marc-Andrea Hüsler at the Sofia Open in November – Harris’s first win at ATP Tour level at the age of 28 – things have been moving fast. After progressing to the quarter-finals at Queen’s last week, beating the world No 32, Tomás Martín Etcheverry, along the way, Harris won £52,534 in prize money. Before that, he had won £209,129 in his whole career. And on Friday Harris fell just short of becoming the first Briton to reach the men’s singles final at Eastbourne after he narrowly lost to Australia’s Max Purcell in the Rothesay International semi-final 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

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Harris is equipped with a vicious serve and big ground strokes, and Beecher is confident he can continue his career-best form at Wimbledon. “Physically, he’s a bit of a specimen,” he says. “He’s playing with more rotation on his forehand and his backhand has always been the money shot. There’s no reason why he can’t do something at Wimbledon.”

Receiving a Wimbledon wildcard is the climax of Harris’s hard-fought career. “It’s not like he’s 20 years old and has always been on a path to getting one,” says Cash. “The last couple of years he’s taken a step forward and really deserves it. It’s great to see someone like that finding a way through the system. He’s had no helping hand to get where he is, so credit to him.”

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