"Everything is going my way": Cameron Norrie is making inroads

"Everything is going my way": Cameron Norrie is making inroads

"It would be nice to finish the year in the Top 10. A single digit number would be great. But we will see how the year goes."

Cameron Norrie is a testament to the universality of tennis. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, he was raised in New Zealand, trained in Great Britain, and attended college in the United States. At 23, he is just beginning to scale the heights of his game. He currently resides at a career-high of No. 45 in the world.

Competing at the Barcelona Open on the red clay of Spain, Norrie confronted a wily slow court campaigner in Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the first round today, and was soundly beaten 6-2, 6-2 by the left-hander. But he is looking to groom his clay court game for the French Open in the weeks ahead.  Norrie has every reason to be optimistic about what is in store for him.

It was only last year that Norrie broke into the Top 100 in the ATP Rankings, reaching a peak of No. 66 in August, ending the season at No. 91. When he spoke with me in a telephone interview from Barcelona yesterday, he said, “Ending last year in the Top 100 was huge for me. It was not easy after playing a lot of Challengers the year before to make that step up. I played predominantly ATP tournaments rather than Challengers last year. I think I played only three Challengers. It was a tough schedule so that was great for me to do what I did.”

Perhaps his highlight of 2018 was recouping from two sets to love down while representing Great Britain in  Davis Cup against Spain on clay. He battled back ferociously to beat Roberto Bautista Agut, one of the game’s most industrious competitors, in five sets. Norrie was ranked No. 114 at the time, while Bautista Agut was No. 23.

He recalls, “That really kick-started my year. To get that win especially on clay away in the Davis Cup was so big for me and gave me confidence for the rest of the year. It was pretty sick to make my debut that way and have that experience under my belt. I honestly don’t know how I did it. I backed myself physically, took it one point and one game at a time, and suddenly I found myself square at two sets all. I just hung with him. I had enough fuel in the tank to get myself over the finish line.”

Building on that triumph, Norrie’s record in 2018 included semifinal appearances at Lyon, Atlanta, and Los Cabo. He commenced 2019 robustly, reaching the final of the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand. That showing was gratifying in a multitude of ways. He was performing mightily in a place where he lived as a kid.

As he explains, “It was pretty special for me to do so well there and make the final. As a kid, I was a fan at the tournament there, so it was massive to me to go so far this year. I never played well in the past there so it was pretty unexpected. I had a lot of home support there. My parents and my sister were there and some mates who I went to school with and grew up with. A lot of people saw how much I had progressed and it was nice that I brought out my best level for everyone to see.”

Norrie won only a couple of matches across his next four tournaments but took that in stride, knowing full well that all players have their peaks and valleys in the field of competition.

“It’s always tough,” he explains. “I went over to South America on the clay and it was pretty difficult for me to get used to playing over there. But after a couple of losses I hit the ground running and did well in Acapulco. In tennis, you have to be patient with yourself. You are going to have highs and lows so you need to prepare yourself as much as you can every week. Eventually you will have an opportunity.”

 

That is precisely what happened in Acapulco as Norrie rediscovered his finest form. He ousted Yoshihito Nishioka, Diego Schwartzman and Mackenzie McDonald before losing to Alexander Zverev in the penultimate round.

“It was my first tournament on hard courts in a while,” he remembers, “and I really enjoyed the week there. I got some decent points by winning that many matches. The win over Schwartzman was tough. I had to hit a lot of tennis balls in the court to beat him. It was one of my better wins of the year. He is coming at you with those returns of his and putting so many balls in the court that to get past him was huge and difficult, especially on those slow hard courts that he likes so much. It was a great win for me.”

Assessing his 7-6, 6-3 loss to Zverev, Norrie asserts. “I learned that I can hang with those guys. I didn’t even play that well but I lost my serve only once in the second set so I was right there with him. I took a lot of confidence from that. It was a great week all around and he was just too good on the day.”

He did not win a match in his next three tournaments, but Norrie played some stellar tennis last week in Monte Carlo at the Masters 1000 tournament. He upended Adrian Mannarino and the promising Martin Fucsovics to reach the round of 16. He was happy with how he performed on the dirt.

“I was carrying a bit of an injury to my hip from playing in Houston,” Norrie says, “and wasn’t quite sure I was going to play Monte Carlo. So everything that happened there was a bonus. I felt fine and played great. I was feeling the injury a bit but it did not impede me. It was huge to come through adversity and give myself a chance to play well and unbelievable to beat two guys that are more experiences on the clay than me. That was unreal.”

In many ways, his entire career trajectory has been astounding. He started playing the game while growing up in New Zealand. His parents both played squash but he took up tennis. As Norrie points out, “I played at a local club, did pretty well in the ITF junior tournaments and got my ranking pretty high. Then I moved to London when I was 16 or 17 because I knew as I looked to the future that it would be tough to base yourself out of New Zealand. I was playing three or four days a week and there were some decent players to hit with, but I was not getting the right exposure. I made the switch to London with the LTA taking me under their wings. They were great.”

 

But soon he needed to make another important move in his life. Norrie left Great Britain for the United States to attend Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. That decision to spend three years (2015-2017) may have been singularly crucial in making Norrie the player he is today.

“College tennis was great for me,” he reflects. “I had a chance to live a more normal and balanced life, going to classes and having teammates to practice with and constantly being around them. Out on the tour it can be pretty lonely so going to college game me a chance to fully mature and enjoy everything like going out with your friends. I had some great coaches, great teammates and great leaders around me and was pretty lucky having the right people to get the best out of me and help me grow as a person.”

Looking back on the experience of concluding his career with an almost unbeatable season in 2017 and a rise to No. 1 in college tennis, Norrie says, “I honestly didn’t have any expectations when I went to TCU. Focusing on my academics took the pressure off of myself. I didn’t even focus that much on the results. I literally forget about that and enjoyed everything that college had to offer. In my last year I was playing really well and it was huge for me to finish No. 1 and prove as I was leaving that I was the best player in college tennis. That felt good even though it was not a goal of mine.”

Norrie realized he was not going to graduate essentially by the end of his sophomore year. He says, “I had made the final in a Challenger so I was almost ready to turn pro after the second year. But I ended up staying an extra year because it would have been pretty tough on the team to blindside them and just turn pro and leave then hanging with no one to cover my place. So I used that extra year to work really hard on my game and hit the ground running and I lost only one match all year. That gave me a big boost for my pro career.”

Meanwhile, while he was at TCU in his freshman year, he met Facundo Lugones, who was then a senior on the team. They formed a deep bond and now Lugones is coaching Norrie out on the ATP Tour.

“I was on the team with Facundo for one year so I just asked him to coach me when I turned pro. We were best friends in college so it is a pretty sick story. It’s great. We are just taking it week by week. I am learning a lot from him and it is all cool. It is a good relationship that we have.”

Norrie believes his game is “pretty solid. I just want to get more and more physical and a little bit stronger. I am learning from my losses and I need to keep working on my concentration in matches. That is the biggest thing. I also need to keep being more aggressive, coming forward more and looking to dictate. If I can do that I will be pretty tough to beat because I defend pretty well.”

By no means is Norrie consumed with his ranking or obsessed with where he stands at any given moment. Asked where he would like to end up the year in the official ATP Rankings, Norrie says, “I haven’t thought about that at all. The No. 1 priority for me is keeping my body healthy and giving myself a chance every week to be as prepared as I can. That is all I can ask for. It would be nice to finish the year in the Top 10. A single digit number would be great. But we will see how the year goes. I will just do the best I can. For now, I am looking forward to the French Open. When I am moving well and feeling real physical, I can play well on the clay and am grateful to have the opportunity to play there this year. I hopefully will give myself a chance to go deep in the tournament.”

Asked at the end of our interview how he feels about making the most of himself over the next bunch of seasons, the 23-year-old Norrie responds, “I am lucky to be traveling the world and playing tennis for a living. It could have been very different if I had gone on to get my degree at TCU. I could easily have been involved in something else. I am grateful to be where I am right know and trying to make the most of it. Everything is going my way and that is how I want to keep it. I don’t ever want to get ahead of myself.”