Can Last Brit Standing Cameron Norrie Challenge Rafael Nadal?

Cameron Norrie in action at the Australian Open

Pity poor Cameron Norrie. He finally gets a match against one of “The Big Three”, in the third round of the Australian Open against Rafael Nadal, only to discover that the latest coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne means that he will face the great Spaniard in an empty stadium.

That can only make his task against Nadal even harder, because the Aussie love of the underdog (perhaps an inheritance from Britain) would surely have seen any fans who were not actively supporting Nadal loudly cheering on Norrie, even if the New Zealand-raised Briton would not normally attract such support on the Australian side of the Tasman Sea.

Norrie’s task against Nadal was hard enough as it was, without the dread prospect of performing in front of banks of empty seats. There is a gulf in experience, and frankly ability, between the 20-time Major winner and Norrie, who has reached the third round in Melbourne for the first time, which is only the second time that he has progressed beyond the second round at any Major in the four years since he turned professional after completing his tennis education in the US college system.

And yet it is the memory of the previous time that Norrie made the third round at a Major that will surely sustain him as he prepares to face Nadal. That was at last year’s US Open, when he caused the shock of the first round (and arguably the whole tournament) by defeating the fifth seed, Diego Schwartzman, in a truly epic five-set marathon.

The diminutive Argentine, who less than a month later would make the semifinals at Roland Garros, was stunned as Norrie fought back from two sets down to win 3-6 4-6 6-2 6-1 7-5 in just under four hours. Perhaps significantly, that match was also played without fans, albeit on one of the outside courts at Flushing Meadow rather than on one of the cavernous show courts in Melbourne, where the absence of a crowd will feel even more pronounced.

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Nevertheless, Norrie can take great heart from that victory over Schwartzman, the best of his career to date. Although Nadal is an even more fearsome competitor than Schwarzman, with a far greater weight of shot and all-round physical presence, the fact is that Norrie always seems to produce his best performances when he is given little or no chance of victory, as he showed on his Davis Cup debut in 2018 when he defeated Roberto Bautista Agut on clay in Spain. Put simply, Norrie seems to love being the underdog and in that respect at least the South African-born, New Zealand-raised and US-educated 25-year-old is a true Brit.

There are at least two other reasons for Norrie to retain hope as he prepares to face Nadal. The first is that Nadal is hardly in peak physical condition, having not played at last week’s ATP Cup because of his ongoing back problems. There was some evidence of those problems again in his second-round victory against the American Michael Mmoh, even if that was largely forgotten amid the furore caused by a spectator visibly giving Nadal the finger before being ejected.

Was she perhaps a devoted Federer fan who fears, like all fans of the great Swiss, that Nadal will soon overtake their hero, making it 21 Majors in ’21? The other reason is that Norrie, like Nadal, is left-handed, meaning that he will not face the same difficulties, and angles, that right-handers face when confronting Nadal’s vicious, high-leaping forehand.

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However, the likelihood is that Nadal will defeat Norrie and progress to the second week in Melbourne. And for all his own injury problems, he may have taken heart from the even greater physical difficulties that Novak Djokovic, his main rival for the Australian Open title, exhibited in his third-round match against another American, Taylor Fritz, which saw the Serb being taken the distance after winning the first two sets.

Indeed, so pronounced was Djokovic’s discomfort that in the on-court interview after the match he said that he was unsure whether he would even be able to play in the fourth round. He clearly struggled against the big-serving Fritz, who could arguably have been more ambitious in going for his shots when it was apparent that his opponent was suffering from greatly reduced mobility. That is certainly not a mistake that Nadal would make if, as is still possible, he and Djokovic end up contesting next weekend’s men’s singles Final.

This weekend, though, Nadal must first overcome Norrie, the last British player remaining in either the men’s or women’s singles in Melbourne. Of course, Norrie himself knocked out the highest-ranked British man at the Australian Open, when he defeated Dan Evans – fresh, or perhaps not so fresh, from his victory at one of the warm-up tournaments, the Murray River Open – in the first round.

But it was non-British players, and injuries, that accounted for all the other Britons before the third round. Jo Konta, the British #1 and 13th seed, suffered a severe abdominal strain that caused her to retire against Slovenia’s Kaja Juvan. Katie Boulter could not repeat her warm-up heroics, namely beating Coco Gauff, as she rather limply lost to Daria Kasatkina, the occasionally brilliant but generally inconsistent Russian.

Francesca Jones, who had shown superhero-like strength in overcoming the challenge presented by being born with only three fingers on each hand to qualify for Melbourne, lost in straight sets to the more powerful and more experienced American, Shelby Rogers.

With Kyle Edmund missing through injury and Andy Murray absent because it was impossible for him to comply with the strict quarantining requirements that Australia is imposing on any incomers to the country, it has been a particularly disappointing week for fans of British tennis. Indeed, the fear is growing that, post-Murray and to a lesser extent post-Konta, the talent cupboard is fairly bare.

However, all of that will be forgotten if Cam Norrie, the man who would have the best nickname in all of sport if only he would use the “J.Lo”-like shortened version of his name (Cam Norrie = C.No = Evil!), can produce one of the all-time upsets at the Australian Open and somehow prevail against the great Nadal.

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