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Cameron Norrie’s run to the Wimbledon semi-finals has come as no surprise to his first coach. Watching on from nearly 11,400 miles away, Julia Sim has seen all the same traits that she instilled in him throughout his early days as a tennis player, 21 years ago in Auckland, New Zealand.
Not many know Norrie better than Sim, the brains who transformed him from a right-handed tennis player into a left-handed one. His form at this year’s Championships, which has set up a last-four clash with reigning champion Novak Djokovic on Friday, has featured the same “resilience and stamina” that Norrie has displayed “since he was a little boy”, according to Sim, a two-time Olympian who played tennis for Zimbabwe and began coaching Norrie when he was five years old at the Bucklands Beach Tennis Club in Auckland.
“As a youngster, he was notorious for just playing the ball back on and on and on. Until he’d drive his opponents demented,” the 51-year-old said.
“He was always focused, determined and highly competitive, no matter what. And that’s quite unusual in a kid. If I said ‘form a line’, he’d be the first in that line.
“When he started to play tournaments, he definitely had a winning mindset. He wasn’t there to play the fool, have fun, or just run around. Then, of course, he did win all the tournaments, and he just kept on winning.”
Can that mentality make you a sore loser? “Well, he didn’t lose often, but if he did he would go down fighting. You know, he can scrap. Cameron really typifies a true sportsman that is not going to lose. Sometimes it takes a little bit of ugliness to get to that level. I’ve seen that in his competitiveness for sure.”
Sim coached Norrie until he was about 12, and is responsible for his left-handed stance. While Norrie uses his right hand to write, Sim said he “vacillated between his right hand and left hand in tennis”.
“So, we made him into a left-handed tennis player, which has a slight advantage. You turn the ball slightly differently. It comes to people differently from what they expect. So, it takes some adjustment to play a left hander.”
Bucklands Beach Tennis Club sits on a small peninsula, a stone’s throw down the road from Norrie’s childhood home and less than 100 metres from the sea. Norrie comes from a close-knit, tennis-loving family, Sim said.
His Scottish dad and Welsh mum are both microbiologists. Norrie’s sister Bronwen is a lawyer who recently moved from New Zealand to the UK. The Norries lived in South Africa until their son was three, when a traumatic break-in spurred their move to New Zealand. Like many migrants from southern Africa, including Sim, they settled in coastal east Auckland.
“They’re a very active family, all keen sportsmen, and very focused on Cam’s tennis from the start,” said Sim.
“Not in a ‘crazy tennis parent’ kind of way, but they realised this talent and got behind it. So it wasn’t just luck that he got to the top, there was a lot of goal setting as a child. To become a champion, you really need that. To have parents behind you, doing the fetching, the carrying, you know, just everything. Being your rock and driving you forward. I don’t think any child on their own can do it, no matter how much they love tennis or how talented they are.”
Norrie and his family are still very much a part of the club, Sim said. “In fact, we probably see the Norries every day. They come down with their dogs, Lulu, a black Labrador cross, and Peggy, who is a Labradoodle.
“When Cameron is home, he comes to visit us, too. He’s so lovely, spending time with our juniors – hitting with them, playing with them. He’s just a great role model for our kids, who are trying to emulate his pathway. When he’s away, he interacts with them on social media, answering questions – he’s just one of them really.
“Now he lives in the UK, but he’s often on the phone to his mum and dad, asking: ‘How are the dogs?’ They’re all great animal lovers. So, he’s a homebody in a way. He was in Auckland during the first Covid lockdown and would run past our houses. We’d all come out to wave and chat. And when we could play tennis again, he was out hitting on the courts.”
Sim said that everyone at Bucklands Beach Tennis Club was “enthralled” by Norrie’s success at Wimbledon. She slept through his Wimbledon quarter-finals game – on at 1.15am, New Zealand time – but watched the highlights as soon as she woke up.
“It was really amazing, all those highs and the lows. In terms of tennis, Cameron is notoriously dogged, determined, and he makes opponents play a lot of shots. He has great court craft. David Goffin plays a similar game, so that made it a really hard, tough match.
“It’s actually been quite overwhelming and so heartwarming to see him there. It’s a dream that so many kids have, you know. Everybody has that dream of playing at Wimbledon. The fact that he is actually there and reached the semi-finals is really momentous.
“While we can’t possibly take credit for the magnificent tennis he plays, we did install in him a love for the game – enough for him to continue to play. I’m so proud that we have been a small cog in that process.”
The club is planning to give Norrie honorary life membership to honour his achievements. Sim said her Olympic experience made her “really feel for Cameron”.
“It’s so, so hard [at the top]. The mental side, all the pressure and those things that go with it make his achievement even bigger than you can imagine. It takes a very special person to be able to go through all of that.”
Another Auckland coach avidly watching Norrie is Mark Lewis of Tennis Auckland, a champion New Zealand tennis player who coached German Michael Stich through his 1991 Wimbledon win. Lewis, 61, began working with Norrie when he was eight.
“It was pretty obvious to me from the start that Cam had the potential to become one of the best kids in New Zealand tennis – which he went and did pretty quickly.”
Lewis said that while Norrie had “always been a kid who could do a lot with a ball”, there had been some reluctance to get “really physical on the court” in his early years.
“So, what’s really pleasing for me is he’s known now as one of the fittest and hardest-working guys out on the tour. He certainly toughened up and earned that reputation for himself. Watching that hometown boy progress certainly brings me a lot of pleasure.”
Lewis said Norrie has “a hell of a lot of support from Kiwis”, despite playing for the UK. “I consider him an Aucklander, but the fact that he’s flying under the British flag doesn’t worry me.
“As long as Cam’s doing well, I’m happy. We don’t know what may have happened if he hadn’t changed allegiance, but you can’t argue with the fact it seems to have been a darn good decision. Look where he is now, and where he has the opportunity to go in the days and years ahead.”
Both coaches agreed there is not a lot of support for promising young tennis players in New Zealand. Lewis said they had to take a DIY approach: “There’s certainly not as much financial support as you might get from the LTA, for instance. Different-sized bank accounts.” Sim lamented “a massive scrapheap of talented junior players”.
“Recreationally, tennis is huge here. But there’s a sort of void that comes when the really good players reach 15 or 16, which is critical because a lot of money is needed to travel – we are really in the middle of nowhere. So, what some of our kids do is go off to America. They get university scholarships.
“For Cameron, that’s been fantastic. He found a very professional environment in Texas. That place and his coaches really suited him, and helped him realise his future. And then, very fortunately, the British snapped him up.”