Cameron Norrie had two long days to think about exactly what he could do to get under Novak Djokovic’s skin in the biggest match of his life, the semi-finals of Wimbledon on Centre Court. For many challengers over the years, that would have been just enough time to overthink it all, to grasp the significance of the occasion and immediately go down in flames.
But Norrie, 26, rose up to the challenge from the beginning. He started with high intensity and energy, imposing himself on the six-time champion and imploring him to keep up as he established an early lead.
He was simply beaten by a considerably better tennis player in the end. After an out-of-sorts start and a one-set deficit, Djokovic gradually contained Norrie before comfortably outplaying him as he won 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
With his victory, Djokovic has resumed his history-making after his first two grand slams were marked by his deportation from Australia and then the misfortune of drawing Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals of the French Open. He has now reached an eighth career Wimbledon final, which puts him second on the men’s all-time list only behind the 12 of Roger Federer.
As he now contests his 32nd grand slam final, a new men’s all-time record, Djokovic stands one win away from becoming the second player, also after Federer, to match what seemed like an unattainable men’s 0record two decades ago: Pete Sampras’s seven Wimbledon titles.
When his achievements were mentioned in his on-court interview, Djokovic soaked up the applause and then shrugged: “Thank you so much, I appreciate that, but the job’s not finished.”
Standing before Djokovic, the top seed, and his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title is the unseeded Australian Nick Kyrgios, who reached his first grand slam final on Thursday after Nadal, the second seed, was forced to withdraw before Friday’s scheduled match with an abdominal injury. It will be an enormous occasion.
For Norrie, after spending much of the past 18 months rising up the rankings and establishing himself at the top of the game while still under the radar, his great strides often coming at events away from public view, this was his moment. On the biggest stage at Wimbledon, against one of the superstars of the sport, he had given himself an opportunity to show his abilities. The audience was packed accordingly with people there to see him, and to be seen watching him, from Sir Alex Ferguson to Wayne Rooney.
On an oppressively hot day in London, Djokovic initially appeared far more nervous, spraying errors while he struggled with Norrie’s flat, low-bouncing backhand. Norrie continually tested his patience, drawing him into long rallies and eliciting errors as he broke serve three times in the set. As Norrie served out the first set, he slammed down two aces, including his hardest serve of the tournament at 127mph.
For all Norrie’s positive energy, Djokovic was dire in the opening set. Afterwards, he acknowledged the pressure he felt even after being in this position so many times. “Of course I’ve had many semi-finals but it’s never easy walking on the court. You have a lot of pressure, expectations from yourself and of course from others.”
His improvements in the second set started with his serve as he navigated his first few service games well and then found greater rhythm on his groundstrokes.
He began to put Norrie under pressure in his own service games and at 4-3 to Djokovic, after a poor service game, Norrie sprayed a forehand long on break point. As the momentum shifted, Djokovic marched on, reeling off five games in a row to lead by an early break in the third set and he saw it out with ease.
As the relentless pressure from Djokovic continued into the fourth set, Norrie did not give up. He audibly encouraged himself, animating the crowd and chasing down every last ball. But charged with taking greater risks than usual and playing far out of his own comfort zone, Norrie’s errors piled up and the vast gap between the 20-time grand slam champion and debut semi-finalist continued to grow until the end.
As Djokovic sealed his victory, he sent a kiss to a disruptive fan in the audience, which led to a smattering of boos from the crowd. The cheers returned as he heaped praise on his fallen opponent: “Cameron didn’t have much to lose, he was playing the tournament of his life,” said Djokovic. “He’s a great player and I have a lot of respect for him.”
As Norrie’s breakout tournament comes to an end, this should be another pivotal moment in his career. He had arrived at Wimbledon searching for his first fourth-round berth at a grand slam tournament, a result that had evaded him for a while. Presented with an opportunity to go much further, he handled all the pressure as the top-ranked British player at Wimbledon extremely well and demonstrated both his mental toughness and the comprehensive improvements in his game that have allowed him to flourish.
Norrie has established himself on the biggest stages of the sport and has shown what he is capable of. The next challenge in his career is to ensure this is not actually the tournament of his life and build a game that enables him to return to these stages time and time again.