Five Finals And A Maiden Title: Cameron Norrie’s Breakthrough 2021 Season

Cameron Norrie at the ATP San Diego Open.

Coming into 2021 it felt very much like tennis had Cameron Norrie pegged. The Briton, by flag of convenience at least, was seemingly a competent mid-ranked player who could rally, serve and defend well. He was certainly capable of giving good players a good game, but with only one ATP final to his name, and that in favourable conditions, he certainly wasn’t a player that many were taking much notice of.

Early signs of a special year

This has been a year of firsts for the young Johannesburg-born left-hander. Beginning the year ranked #71, the first sign that things were going well was a run to the semifinals of his first 2021 tournament at Delray Beach. A close loss as slight outsider to Sebastian Korda seemed par for the course still though. So near and yet so far. Korda looked destined to be yet another barrier to real success for Norrie then, yet Norrie is likely to end this year above the young American star in the rankings.

The Australian Open added another step on the road to success. Taking out countryman Daniel Evans in the opening round saw Norrie to proceed into the third round where he was competitive against Rafael Nadal without ever really looking li. Exactly the same scenario unfolded in Paris as well as another competitive display against the great Spaniard ultimately ended in a straight sets defeat. At, Wimbledon Norrie had done enough to be seeded for the first time at a Major, but he again failed to get past that tricky third round: this time another all-time great in Roger Federer stood in his way and Norrie lost out in four close sets.

A wall with sharp edges

That level of consistency at the top end of the spot was built from solid foundations. The attributes used to categorise Norrie as average were actually the foundations that have set him up for success. His rallying has taken a step up; mixing his unorthodox, but consistent, groundstrokes with his athletic ability and committed attitude to create a wall. Except this wall has some sharp edges built into it now.

Where the 2020 and before Norrie would have a solid but ultimately only functional serve, his leftie delivery is now a weapon. He has been much more difficult to break this year, in 2020 Norrie held serve 74.7% of the time, 2021 sees this at 81.7%, a clear 7% increase. The points won on serve has similarly increased from 61% to 64% as well, all this despite a reduction in the number of aces per game.

The serve and the whole game is adaptable across all surfaces as well. This allows Norrie to pick up good ranking points across the season, in fact, his win ratio across the natural surfaces of clay and grass are better than hard. The short take back of the backhand makes it effective on faster surfaces and his longer, high-top spin take back for his forehand appears to have helped Norrie on the clay quite a lot.

Fabulous series of finals

The evidence is there in the results. Norrie had reached one final in his career before this year, at the 2019 Auckland Open in hisĀ  hometown. That was on a hard court, but in May 2021 Norrie made it to his second final. That was in Estoril, Portugal on the clay. He also lost this one, to Albert Ramos Vinolas, but got straight back up and made another final two weeks later in Lyon, again on clay. This time it was Stefanos Tsitsipas who denied Norrie a maiden title. However, he had shown, as he did on Davis Cup debut for Great Britain in 2018, that clay was a surface he could excel on.

By no means was Norrie finished on this run though. The change of surface to grass did nothing to slow his progress. Taking Matteo Berrettini to a third set in the Queens final was impressive, and his first ATP500 final in his career. Still, that first title eluded Norrie, though his climbing ranking meant that his seedings were improving. When he entered the Los Cabos 250 event in Mexico Norrie found himself the top seed at tour-level for the first time and in the perfect position to strike.

Top billing to first title

Of course, being top seed does come with its own pressure, especially having never won a title before. Again, though, Norrie demonstrated the strength of his character. He won the title without breaking sweat, which, in Mexico in July, is quite some achievement. He was something of an American hunter that week with Ernesto Escobedo, Taylor Fritz and Brandon Nakashima all beaten by Norrie en route to lifting the trophy.

A first-round defeat at the US Open was disappointing, but also relatively unfortunate after he drew the exceptionally gifted Carlos Alcaraz. with the Spanish phenom going on to reach the quarterfinals in New York. Judging by the results last week in San Diego though, Norrie is clearly over that defeat. He played some excellent tennis to reach his fifth final of the season in San Diego, back on hard court, beating Andrey Rublev in the semifinals. He did then suffer a heavy defeat to Casper Ruud, but once again showed the versalitity and consistency that are fast becoming his calling cards.

Projecting into Cameron Norrie’s future

Norrie is now placed at 14th in the Race to Turin and at world #27 in the live rankings. With Evans six spots ahead of him at #21 it must be a big goal for Norrie to finish the season as the top-ranked British man. Perhaps the more interesting question is whether 2021 is a career year for Norrie or whether this is in fact a bridging year for the 26-year-old and can he make a position in the top 20 players in the world his own.

For now, we can do no more than speculate, but his all-court game certainly gives Norrie a chance of earning a lot of ranking points across the season. His groundstroke production and ultimate lack of top-line power may well stop the Briton getting over the line in a Grand Slam. His difficult staying in Ruud certainly points to that. However, more ATP 250 and 500 titles should be well within Norrie’s grasp. First up, however, is the chance to make his mark in Tennis Paradise.

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