Sport

Norrie heats up Centre Court but fast start fails to deliver fairytale final | Emma John

There was a tacit acknowledgment on Centre Court on Friday that we might need to pace ourselves. It’s been 10 years since Andy Murray was the last Briton to reach a men’s semi-final, but everyone remembered how exhausting it can be. It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity; it’s not the hits, it’s the hopes.

The sun bore down on the middle sections of Centre Court, where the shade of the roof can’t reach, turning the prized courtside seats into a pointillist painting of panama hats, an animated gif of fluttering fans. When Cameron Norrie won the first point of the match – and then the second – there were oohs of anticipation rather than cries of delight. The crowd seemed to know, instinctively, that they should conserve their energy on the hottest day of the tournament.

The home hero gave them little chance of that. Conserving energy is not the Norrie way. Not any more. Ever since the pandemic, when he was locked down in New Zealand with his parents, the 26-year old has made it his mission to improve his fitness, and run down every ball. That was certainly the gameplan here against Novak Djokovic, and it paid instant dividends.

After a languid series of volleys unfolded in slow motion, Norrie was suddenly a break up in the first game. It was as unexpected as his entire run to this stage of the competition, and no one was quite ready to accept it was real. It could have been the heat playing tricks, after all.

There had been few takers for the offered refund here after Rafael Nadal’s semi-final was cancelled late on Thursday evening, although it’s worth noting that the window to apply for your money back was 10pm to midnight, so you had to be paying attention. All refunded tickets were quickly resold, and there was plenty of business on The Hill, too, whose yellowing grass – distinctly scraggy compared with the lush green hues of the rest of the compound – had disappeared beneath picnic blankets and floral maxi dresses.

So, did the day feel light on entertainment? Perhaps. The ladies’ doubles, drafted in as a last‑minute support act on Centre, had come and gone in just over an hour. And it featured a disappointing lack of Nick Kyrgios – although the Australian’s absence does lend a certain Liza-Minnelli-for-one-night-only feel to his Sunday appearance.

Norrie v Djokovic was never going to provide on the explosive animosity front. Djokovic is known to be a gent. Norrie comes across as extremely level-headed, perhaps a product of his global upbringing – born in South Africa, raised in New Zealand, college educated in the US and trained in Britain. Sue Barker has dubbed him “a delightful young man”, and she has a nose for these things.

The last time the two met, the British No 1 was beaten 6-2, 6-1 and left the court like a man who had just encountered a sandbag to the solar plexus. There was a lot more sparkle and fight to his play here. In the third game, Norrie ran all the way from the back left corner of the court to the right-hand net to lift a Djokovic drop back over his opponent’s head. Djokovic rescued it with a lob of his own from between his legs, and Norrie still managed to chase it down at the baseline.

For a while there, they were dancing cheek to cheek. Djokovic spanked a forehand, Norrie spanked one back. Djokovic sliced artfully, Norrie did likewise. When Djokovic hit long and Norrie had another break the crowd were ready this time, straight on their feet. And everything was going wrong for Djokovic, who just couldn’t find range on the baseline. Even the net cord refused to bend to his famous will, the ball bouncing up from a powerful hit to fall, almost impossibly, back on his side of the net.

But two breaks and a single set was as good as it was going to get for the Brit. From the moment Djokovic came out in the second with his cap on, he demonstrated an instant cool. He sent Norrie ever further back in the court – sometimes at the expense of his own balance (at one stage, Djokovic did the splits and ending up face planting) – and the pressure told, Norrie losing his first break point to a horrible hook off the frame of his racket. From then on, Djokovic was always in control.

The loudest two cheers of the match came for Norrie holds of serve – first at 1-2 in the third, then at 2-3 in the fourth, after a game in which he saved four break points, three of them from deuce. The crowd knew there was no fairytale ending on the horizon – but that didn’t mean they wanted the story to end just yet.