After spending four long, intense and heartbreaking hours on court with Cameron Norrie during their five‑set quarter-final on Tuesday and then speaking about him with admiration to the press, David Goffin was asked the one pressing question that was still to be resolved: could Norrie beat Novak Djokovic?
“We never know, we never know,” said Goffin, although his smile and the shake of his head betrayed his doubt. “If he’s playing the tennis of his life maybe, and Novak is not feeling well, we never know, we never know. But Novak is Novak. He’s playing even better when the crowd is against him. Novak is just an alien, and to beat an alien, I don’t know how to do [it].”
Goffin’s perspective is the prevailing outlook on the task facing Norrie against an opponent who is two wins from his fourth successive Wimbledon title. If Norrie is to stand a chance, there are a number of assets he must draw upon.
Fitness and consistency
On Tuesday evening, Norrie reflected on the significance of his five-set victory over Goffin and he explained that as he formulated a plan with his coach, Facundo Lugones, they concluded that the match would only truly begin after two hours. Norrie’s fitness is the focal point of his success and he takes great pride in it. He believes he can outlast all opponents.
Standing before Norrie on the court is the one player in the world who would certainly disagree. Djokovic reached the semi-final by defeating Jannik Sinner in an increasingly typical sequence, recovering from a two-set deficit with relative ease. Even though Norrie may have to produce one of the best attacking performances of his career just to keep things close, especially on grass, he will also step on the court determined to test Djokovic’s stamina and patience to the limit with his own fitness and consistency.
The flat backhand
One of Norrie’s greatest assets is how tricky and unusual his game is. He will hope that it will be even more pronounced and that Djokovic will have to adjust to his game. Norrie’s backhand, his best and most reliable groundstroke, is one of the flattest shots on the tour. Norrie “bunts” the backhand with a short, abbreviated swing, taking the ball on the rise and remaining remarkably consistent with the stroke despite its low net clearance.
It is extremely effective on all surfaces but particularly on grass, where it skids low, often to the right-hander’s forehand. “When you have that shot going to the forehand, you can rush them, keep the ball really low and hard, it’s really uncomfortable for most players because they’re not used to it,” said Lugones.
The spinny forehand
The effectiveness of Norrie’s backhand is only bolstered by what he offers with his forehand, which could not provide a greater contrast. His forehand has been a work in progress. In his early days, it was extremely underpowered and tentative. In a sport where most top players can dominate with their forehands, his inability to take control of the baseline with his own is still often the difference against the very best players.
But his elaborate, lengthy swing produces extreme top spin that is an asset in its own right. Offering opponents different types of shots and ensuring that they can never find a sufficient rhythm is an essential facet of tennis and Norrie has a built-in advantage with his strokes. “His backhand is really flat and really low. He has a really spinny forehand. So two different shots. So he’s not easy to play,” said Goffin.
Djokovic is all too familiar with the lefty patterns that Norrie favours with his forehand and, as Rafael Nadal’s all-time great forehand has found out, Djokovic’s backhand effortlessly blunts any left-hander’s attempts to drag the opponent off the court with heavy topspin and angles. If Norrie wants a chance of winning, he will have to strike his forehand down the line better than he ever has in his life.
Norrie called his forehand the most improved part of his game and this tournament has been a reflection of the work that has gone into the stroke. At times, particularly against Tommy Paul in his fourth-round match, he was willing to step inside the baseline and unload on his forehand down the line far more than he ever had in the past. “I’m staying committed and hitting through it a little bit more. Especially on this surface, you have to dictate the points. If I’m doing that with my forehand, it means I’m playing well,” said Norrie.
Return of serve
One of the defining aspects of late-career Djokovic’s success is his serve. With every new year his delivery has become even more precise and consistent, unlocking more free points and comfortable second shots. Norrie is eighth in the world for return games won, winning 27.7% this year.
Norrie may not be as spectacular on return as Djokovic, who reads every delivery and deflects them on to an opponent’s laces. But Norrie is extremely good at landing a high percentage of returns consistently deep and digging himself into return games. He will have to blunt Djokovic’s free points on serve effectively in addition to taking care of as many service games as possible with his own improved serve.
Djokovic has made a career out of succeeding despite the hostile crowds that have been present at many points of his career, particularly in his great matches against Roger Federer. He knows how to handle them and to take energy from them, and it is hard to imagine that he will be affected as much as Goffin clearly was.
But the audience will be fully behind Norrie and the British No 1 will need to draw upon them, and the significance of the moment, in order to thrive against an alien in the first slam semi-final of his career.