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The X-factor that has carried Cameron Norrie to the Indian Wells semi-final? It’s his heart, according to Norrie’s long-term coach Facundo Lugones. And Lugones meant this in a literal sense: not courage or resilience, but four valves and a bloody big pump.
After Thursday’s dominant win over Diego Schwartzman, Lugones told reporters that Norrie’s heart can sustain intense activity for periods that would kill the average human. In this, Norrie resembles Bjorn Borg, the 1970s legend whose own resting heart rate was once measured at an almost catatonic 35 beats per minute.
“At the Battle of the Brits last year they were playing with a Catapult,” said Lugones of the biometric measuring device, resembling a giant sports bra, that is used to test athletes’ fitness and movement.
“They were monitoring Cam’s heart rate and I remember Matt Little [Andy Murray’s fitness trainer] told us that after one of the matches against Kyle Edmund he was in the red zone for eight straight minutes, which is almost impossible.
“A normal person would die after two minutes in the red zone, which is like 180 to 200 bpm. [As a boy] Cam was running a lot with his mum back in Auckland. He is just an animal in that department. He can endure anything: long distance and long matches.”
At Indian Wells, where the slow and gritty courts make clean winners as rare as clouds in the desert sky, Norrie’s relentless physicality is his weapon. Most players would prefer to face a big serve or a killer forehand than this perpetual motion machine. “It’s not going to be an easy match,” said his next opponent Grigor Dimitrov of the semi-final. “That goes without saying.”
As Lugones put it on Thursday, “Cam plays every point; I mean, he doesn’t take one point off. He has built a reputation of ‘You're gonna have to show up and really dig deep to beat him.’ A lot of times, that could make players go away a little bit quicker than they would against someone else.”
Again, this sounds reminiscent of Borg. We remember Borg as an international sex symbol of the 1970s, trailing dreamy-eyed crowds in a kind of tennis Beatlemania. But his actual game style was functional rather than spectacular. The great charm of Borg’s famous battles with John McEnroe was the contrast in styles between the artist and the artisan.
Norrie comes from the same school of honest endeavour rather than shot-making virtuosity. He is working with good sporting genes. His Scottish father David played squash at university level, while his Welsh mother Helen is a keen runner with an excellent marathon time. And he has supplemented those natural gifts with a fine work ethic, as he showed during last year’s pandemic shutdown.
“I was doing these 10k runs which I was posting on Strava in competition with some of my friends,” Norrie has said, in relation to the couple of months he spent at his parents’ house in Auckland, New Zealand. “I enjoy the afterburn, and the endorphin rush.”
Dan Evans – the man Norrie overtook on Thursday to become the new British No1 – is a prettier player to watch: a McEnroe to his own Borg. But there are many ways to win a point, as those two historic greats demonstrated. Norrie’s stated ambition is also to be the world’s best player, and even if he doesn’t make it, he will surely wring every last drop out of his talent.
“I think the ceiling is tough to tell,” said Lugones. “We don't really put a number on it. We are just gonna keep getting better and we'll know the ceiling at the end of the career.”
Norrie’s alliance with Lugones is one of the longest-lasting in the game, dating back seven years to when they were both attending Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Lugones – who comes from Buenos Aires in Argentina – was a senior player when Norrie first arrived in 2014.
“He was just a kid that didn’t really know what he was doing,” Lugones has recalled. “A really good player, but everything was kind of random.”
Since then, Norrie has matured into a far more assured character, as well as a very likeable one. “He calls himself the CEO of Norrie Capital,” said Lugones during the summer. “We make fun of him for that. But he is on top of everything now, and also not making excuses, taking ownership if he didn’t have a good day.”
Bad days are increasingly rare. Norrie has accumulated a remarkable tally of 45 tour-level wins this season, including a maiden ATP title in Los Cabos, Mexico. He used to have a choke in him, especially against opponents he was favoured to beat. But even if he still shows occasional signs of tightness, he has improved his mental game to the point where – against Schwartzman on Thursday – he delivered a note-perfect performance in the biggest match of his career to date.
“From the first point to the last, that was the most consistent I've seen him play,” said Lugones of Norrie’s 6-0, 6-2 win, which disposed of one of the tour’s most obdurate opponents in just 73 minutes.
Dimitrov – the stylish Bulgarian who used to be known as “Baby Fed” for his Federer-esque technique – will make for a very different challenge tonight. Still, whatever happens, Norrie Capital is already showing a handy £246,000 influx on its balance sheet.