What we talk about when we talk about current British tennis: Emma Raducanu’s rapid rise, and Andy Murray’s nascent comeback. It’s unsurprising that the teenage Raducanu’s truly extraordinary feat of triumphing in the US Open from the qualifying stages – without dropping a set – dominates the conversation. Nor that Murray’s exertions back on the ATP Tour after his hip surgery focus the attention of fans hungry to extend the joys of watching the “big four”. But in the meantime, there’s a sporting success story sneaking under the radar of the public: Cameron Norrie.
It is debatable whether many Wimbledon viewers will recognise the tall, lightly bearded man wearing the rather loose, unfashionable kit with the (natural) silver stripe in his hair, looking like an amiable badger has gone rummaging through the lost-and-found. But though he lacks the aesthetic slickness of his compatriots with their initials-embroidered shoes and eye-popping Nike patterns, Norrie’s lefty topspin-heavy forehand and powerful two-handed backhand provide more than enough X-factor.
The 26-year-old Norrie enjoyed his breakout season last year, powering up the rankings from 74 to 12 and usurping Dan Evans as British No 1. He narrowly landed a spot at the end-of-year ATP Finals in Turin when an in-form Stefanos Tsitsipas had to withdraw with an elbow injury. Novak Djokovic said Norrie was impressing his peers and absolutely “deserved to be there”, and he broke into the world’s top 10 in April. But it was under the October Californian sun where Norrie stepped into the spotlight for the first time. He was very much a surprise winner of the (Covid-delayed) 2021 edition of Indian Wells; his first Masters 1000 title, and only his second ATP singles title, coming at the biggest event outside the grand slams. He is the only British man to win in the desert. A set and a break down in the final, he employed his corner-landing ground strokes, kissing the lines, and worked the unique conditions – the dry, thin air, and the heavier balls used at the tournament – to his advantage, defeating Nikoloz Basilashvili 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. Norrie had treated Diego Schwartzman – with whom he used to train in Argentina – to a bagel in the quarter-final, winning 6-0, 6-2. Either side of that match, he knocked out Roberto Bautista Agut and Grigor Dimitrov.
At the time, Norrie correctly assessed that he was handling himself much better in the key moments after missing out in previous finals, among them at Queen’s (against Matteo Berrettini) and against Tsitsipas in Lyon. “It was an amazing couple of weeks and I’m so happy with how I treated all the occasions, all the big moments, all the matches.” This was a new Cam Norrie fans were seeing – or perhaps this was the first time they had really taken notice of Norrie at all.
He has won two more singles titles this year, going one better at Lyon – a first triumph on clay – and winning at Delray Beach. He reached the quarters in his Indian Wells defence – back in its usual March slot – before being taken out by Carlos Alcaraz (and there’s no shame in that).
Norrie was born in Johannesburg to a Scottish father and a Welsh mother, but grew up in Auckland and as a junior represented New Zealand until age 16. His mother, Helen, used to drive him to 6.15am practice sessions. His first tennis racket was a repurposed squash racket, and he hit balls in his driveway as a keen six-year-old.
In his late teens he switched allegiance to the nationality of his parents – partly down to the increased funding available – and moved to London, alone, before taking a tennis scholarship at a Texan university, supported by the LTA, where he studied sociology. Norrie’s intelligence and thoughtfulness is evident in interviews. He quickly became the country’s top-ranked male college player. But, contrary to many elite athletes, Norrie has said he fully embraced college life and made sure he had fun; tennis was not his sole focus. When he did turn professional in 2017, he won his first Davis Cup match, which John Lloyd called “one of the most impressive debuts of all time”.
His coach, Facundo Lugones, has been with him since those first professional steps and is equal parts friend and professional. “He really gets the best out of me. It is nice to have someone who knows you well off the court. I can tell him anything. I think it is important you can have someone you can speak openly with about how you are feeling,” was how Norrie described their alchemy after his first ever singles title win at Los Cabos in Mexico, two months before that sensational run at Indian Wells. Norrie is no slouch at doubles either, teaming up with his fellow Brit Kyle Edmund to win at the Estoril Open in 2018.
Norrie’s grass-court swing preparations for Wimbledon begin this week at Queen’s, where he’ll hope to repeat his appearance in the final to lift his ranking from world No 11 and add to his 1,023 main tour-level aces on his solid serve, one of the strongest aspects of his game. His consistency and confidence – and the absence of the strongest of the controversially banned Russian players, including Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev – mean Norrie will fancy a deep run when the strawberries and cream and the Pimm’s roll around at the end of the month.
In the Wimbledon grounds Henman Hill begat Murray Mount. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future fans with sunburnt cheeks and waving union jack flags will be watching centre court matches on the big screen, sprawled across Norrie Knoll.