Why the grass courts of Eastbourne will always be special for Cameron Norrie

EASTBOURNE, ENGLAND - JUNE 26: Cameron Norrie of Great Britain in action during his first round match against Horacio Zeballos of Argentina during day two of the Aegon International Eastbourne on June 26, 2017 in Eastbourne, England. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA) SUS-191206-173731002
EASTBOURNE, ENGLAND - JUNE 26: Cameron Norrie of Great Britain in action during his first round match against Horacio Zeballos of Argentina during day two of the Aegon International Eastbourne on June 26, 2017 in Eastbourne, England. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA) SUS-191206-173731002

Cameron Norrie was last up on Eastbourne’s centre court on a breezy Monday evening back in 2017.

The crowd had thinned after Heather Watson had surprisingly knocked-out defending champion Dominika Cibulkova in straight sets.

Norrie had been on tour for just two months and received a wildcard for the main draw at Devonshire Park. On the other side of the net was Argentina’s World No 49 Horacio Zeballos. Norrie, then aged 21, was a bag of nerves but believed he had a chance to record his first ATP Tour victory.

The opening set was tight but during one exchange, Norrie stretched and cracked a passing shot that fizzed with top-spin. It went beyond the reach of Zeballos and landed a few inches inside the baseline. “That was the moment,” said Norrie. “I hit this unbelievable shot and it stayed with me for the whole match. It gave me the confidence to believe that I could do it.”

Norrie closed out the match after a second set tie-break and celebrated his maiden tour victory. “I was grateful for getting that wildcard and I was so nervous. It was a challenge to hold it together, especially when I was close (to victory) but that was the start for me. Eastbourne will always be special because of that. It kick-started my professional career.”

Since that defining evening on the south coast, Norrie’s career has developed rapidly. The 6ft 2in left-hander has broken into the top 50 and in February 2018 he was selected for the Davis Cup team. It was there he recorded the biggest win of his career, coming from two sets down to defeat world No 23 Roberto Bautista-Agut in five sets. He returned to Eastbourne and reached the quarter-finals and later that year advanced to an ATP semi-final at the Atlanta Open, beating Nick Kyrgios along the way.

“This tennis way of life is addictive,” said Norrie. “You get your first victory, then you want more. You reach the top 100, then you say, ‘okay now for the top 50.’ Now I’ve reached the top 50 and you assess it and say, ‘right, now what do I have to do to get to the next level.’

“Even in your defeats, they are tough to take but you learn and think what could I have done better, where can I improve?”

With thirty-somethings Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic still dominating Slams, the 23-year-old is aiming for similar longevity.

“I’m only two years in and still at the start. It’s hard work but the lifestyle is good and the financial rewards are good too. They (Federer, Djokovic and Nadal) have set the standard. They are so competitive and it’s an addiction, that will to win. As tennis players, it’s in us to compete, to want to be better and that’s what keeps them motivated. I have it in me too, I want to compete and get better. To be more aggressive on court. It’s hard to be satisfied.”

Norrie was born in Johannesburg to a Scottish father and a Welsh mother and then relocated to New Zealand. As a junior, he reached No 10 in the world before moving to London, where he became a British player at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton.

He took a break from full-time tennis and did a three-year sociology degree at Texan Christian University. He credits his time there for helping him rediscover his love for tennis and providing a balanced perspective on life.

Norrie can be unconventional and has found different ways to pass the time during life on tour.

After reaching the last four at the Los Cabos Open in Mexico last year, his coach surprised him with a skydive as a present.

“It was a real buzz,” Norrie said. “The moment of letting yourself go out of the plane was really something. It was about a 40 second free-fall but it felt like five seconds.

“It was over a beach so it was pretty spectacular. I like to do these things and that is another box ticked. It wasn’t to physically taxing and the landing was soft, luckily I didn’t get injured.”

Norrie, who exited the French Open in the first round earlier this month, has been fine-tuning his grasscourt game at Queens. It’s an intense time of year for British players as they tackle the lead-up tournaments ahead of the spotlight of Wimbledon. With Murray nursing his way back from a career-threatening hip operation, the attention on the men’s side of the singles will be on Norrie and Kyle Edmund.

On Wednesday he was warming up at Queens with big-serving South African Kevin Anderson and two practice courts down, Murray, who will play doubles at Queens, was having a hit.

“Murray looked great,” said Norrie. “He was going through some doubles drills. He seemed to be moving nicely and hitting the ball well. I hope he can return to his best. He shows what you have to do to reach the very top level. The intensity of his training and how he implements that into his matches is something we can all learn from.

“As a British player it’s great to receive the support at the home tournaments. It can be intense, especially Wimbledon, but that’s the challenge. I try not to place unnecessary expectations on myself. I will go out there and compete as hard as I can.”