There are stealth planes that have flown less under the radar than Cameron Norrie has at Wimbledon down the years. But halfway through the British No 1’s quiet destruction of the American journeyman Steve Johnson, something shifted. People started to get to their feet. Wave their fists. Make noise.
And as the decibel levels rose, the increasingly rowdy crowd also came up with a new chant: “Norrie! Norrie! Norrie! Oi! Oi! Oi!” It was the sound of joy, but also acceptance.
It has taken a while. The fact that Norrie was born in Johannesburg to a Scottish father and Welsh mother – and then spent the first 16 years of his life in New Zealand – perhaps has played a part. His late development and the pandemic has also meant it has taken a while for him to cut through.
But Norrie certainly has now after destroying Johnson 6-4, 6-1, 6-0 to make the last 16 of a grand slam for the first time.
“I played really well today and enjoyed it,” said Norrie. “It was great to see the crowd reacting and it definitely added to the atmosphere of the match.” Asked directly about the chant, he began to smile. “Honestly, it was pretty funny,” he replied. “I don’t know why I was thinking, every time they sang it, I broke serve. It’s a good sign – I’m a little bit superstitious. But when you’ve got the momentum and everything is kind of going your way, it can help. I’ll definitely take that.
“On the flip side of that, if I was down in the score, they can bring me through it. Trying to use it to my advantage as much as I can. It was good fun out there.”
Norrie also addressed his background, pointing out that he had lived in London before and after going to college in the US. “I’m very rarely in New Zealand,” he added. “I’ve barely been in the last five years obviously with tennis. I really feel good in London.” That certainly seems to be the case. And suddenly Norrie can see a path to the semi-finals that looks far more manageable than he could have dared believe. Next up is the American No 30 seed Tommy Paul, who has enjoyed a strong grass-court season. Then it is likely to be the 23rd seed Frances Tiafoe.
Both matches are likely to be coin flips. But they are winnable too. “It’s going to be a battle for sure,” he said. “Tommy won really comfortably today. I think grass is probably his best surface. He seems really locked in and he really likes the grass. It’s going to be really tough regardless if the draw is open or not.
“At the end of the day I’ll take it. I practise with Tommy. He’s a good friend of mine. We’ve actually practised maybe two or three times already here at Wimbledon. We know each other’s game very well. Good friends off the court. But we’re going to both leave that aside on Sunday.”
One of the enduring themes of this first week has been how slow Centre Court has been to fill to anything close to capacity. However it was particularly apparent here. The old arena – which is celebrating its centenary this year – was still over half full 20 minutes into the match.
Those who came early would have noticed that Norrie was by the far the sharper player early on only to fail to capitalise on double break point opportunities at 2-1 and 3-2 up. A fifth break point also went begging at 5-4, 40-15 on the Johnson serve. But moments later a running winner lifted the crowd off its feet as Norrie took the first set after 41 minutes.
Grass is Johnson’s best surface and the only one on which he has a positive win-loss record. But when he was broken at the start of the second set his shoulders began to drop and his heart was no longer in it as Norrie raced to a two-set lead.
Unlike most of tennis’s big names, Norrie does not possess any truly monster weapons. His serve does not rip the opponent’s heart out. His groundstrokes – a heavy topspin forehand and flat backhand – are more accurate than potent. Yet what he does have more than most is supreme fitness. Never was that better illustrated than at 1-1 in the second set, when he not only scrambled back to recover a lob but did it so quickly that he had time to put Johnson on the defensive with his subsequent shot.
Norrie was not about to take his foot off Johnson’s throat. A break immediately at the start of the third was followed by another, and suddenly he was 3-0 up and in sight of the finish line. Near the end one fan shouted “We love you Cameron.” He smiled back. And then finished the job.