When lockdown descended last year, Cam Norrie strapped on his running shoes and hit the roads.
Armed with the Strava app and with little else to do, he returned to one of his childhood sporting loves and, after a bit, was recording an impressive 38 minutes for 10 kilometres.
Twelve months on and his high levels of stamina and fitness have helped propel him to becoming an unexpected breakthrough star of the clay-court season.
Cam Norrie’s high fitness levels have helped him enjoy a breakthrough clay-court season
The 25-year-old has won 23 matches so far this season and has reached two ATP finals
Despite having little previous pedigree on the surface, he approaches the French Open with 23 wins this season, two ATP finals, and in 14th place in the rankings based on 2021 results, two spots above Dan Evans. In the last two Grand Slams, he has been GB’s longest-lasting singles survivor of either sex.
Opponents are finding it hard to crack Norrie’s attributes of durability and an unusual, smart backhand that is faintly Jimmy Connors-esque. It was too much last week in Lyon for Dominic Thiem, usually rated as one of the few genuine challengers to Rafael Nadal on clay.
‘I’ve always been a good runner,’ says the 25-year-old left-hander. ‘My mum and my grandfather were runners. My mum has always done a lot of marathons, so I have some good genes. I did a lot of cross country at school and was quite decent at cricket but I didn’t like the fielding.
‘In tennis, I don’t have a huge serve or forehand to blast people away so I guess I have to keep my level up for longer than the other guys.’
Norrie beat Dominic Thiem last week in Lyon and believes his stamina is a key strength of his
Even by tennis’s peripatetic standards, Norrie is something of a wanderer. While some players have struggled travelling from bubble to bubble, his eclectic background is perhaps one reason why he appears to have coped so well with it.
Norrie’s British parents, David and Helen, are microbiologists whose work took them to Johannesburg, where he was born. After several security scares, including a neighbour being held at gunpoint, they moved to Auckland.
‘We got broken into a couple of times. My parents were on edge and wanted to be somewhere comfortable raising kids,’ he says.
‘My parents didn’t know too many people in New Zealand so it was quite tough for them at first, sort of courageous. I was too young to remember it. My Dad was thinking about coming back to the UK. He has family in Scotland and likes the cold weather — he has still got the accent.’
With New Zealand tennis geographically isolated and cash-strapped, Norrie took advantage of his British passport and switched allegiance. He spent more time in the UK but was not finished being on the move.
The British number two went through American college system and was a top-ranked player
He chose the increasingly popular route into the professional game by taking a scholarship into the American college system and installing himself at a university in Texas. After becoming the top-ranked college player nationally, he abandoned his studies to turn professional but has since restarted his degree in sociology.
‘I have just re-enrolled to complete it online, I might have to do a semester to graduate but it’s a box I’m keen to tick. It was a great three years there, a balance of learning, fun and tennis.
‘It helped me grow up. You learn to compete not just for yourself but as a team, that’s a lot of pressure in its own way. I would recommend it. In my fresher year I socialised a lot and it was a very rounding experience, but I got more serious after that.’
Now the owner of a flat in Putney, south-west London, he is keen to spend more time there, especially as he has been living out of his kitbag almost non-stop since before Christmas, with all the problems of coming and going through Covid restrictions.
He left the UK early to escape the rampant threat of the virus. Andy Murray might wish he had done the same after contracting the disease at the National Tennis Centre, which ruled him out of the Australian Open.
Andy Murray was ruled out of the Australian Open after contracting Covid-19 earlier this year
‘I left before Christmas, I went to California where my girlfriend (Louise, an interior designer) was staying. I was a bit worried about the Kent variant so I decided to go early. I did come home in late March to break it up but that’s been it. I had already played a lot and needed a rest. I wouldn’t say I’m thriving inside the bubble, but I don’t feel burnt out and it’s an easy excuse to say, “Oh this isn’t great and I’m missing out on so much”. I’m trying not to look at what other people might be doing.’
He is looking forward to spending a bit of time at home, where he enjoys playing golf and watching any sport going on TV. However, he is not expecting even the grass-court season to offer relief from the restrictions.
‘From what I’m hearing, Wimbledon is going to be pretty strict. I actually love having my own place and being able to relax but I’ve loved moving around as much as I have.
Wimbledon looks set to start at the end of June but with high levels of restrictions on players
‘It has shaped me as a person and I’ve met so many different people. Now I’ve earned some money it’s great to put roots down in London.’
There has been no seismic change to his game to inspire such impressive results — including making two ATP finals this month, in Estoril and Lyon.
‘I’m doing everything a little better. I’m being aggressive and my feet have been pretty electric. The biggest thing is consistency and playing better on big points.
‘Dan Evans has done well too. It has been nice to hear comments from coaches and other players saying, “You British guys are unreal on clay” — I’ve enjoyed hearing that and it might have surprised a few people.’
Dan Evans has also impressed as the British players look increasingly at home on clay courts