WIMBLEDON — On Friday, nearly 15,000 people will stream into Center Court to watch Cameron Norrie. Thousands more will sit on Henman Hill in front of the big screen. Five million will tune in on the BBC. He will not be short of eyeballs.
Yet it was only five years ago that the added presence of a few cheerleaders at his matches convinced him to put off turning professional for a couple of months.
At that point, Norrie had become the first ever player at Texas Christian University (TCU) to reach the No 1 in the college rankings, and head coach David Roditi was desperate to cling on to him as long as he could. The reality was that Norrie had probably outgrown the college circuit and was ready to start earning money for his talents from him.
“I remember because I was getting my vasectomy,” Roditi tells Yo.
“I was with the doctor and he literally has his hands… you know… and he said ‘oh you’re a tennis coach. I wonder if you guys ever deal with a situation where a guy might turn pro or not as it well?’
“I said ‘Actually, right now we’re dealing with it. That best player in the country is deciding.’
“And he said, ‘Well, how has that been?’ And I said ‘Well, Doc, let me put it this way. He’s had a tighter hold on my two guys down there than you do right now. Basically whatever he wants, I will do’.”
They sat down with Norrie and asked him what he wanted. The one thing they could not offer, because of college rules that ban athletes from making money, was cash. So Norrie told them that he wanted his matches from him in the second half of the season to have a little fanfare.
“He said, ‘can we have the show girls [a type of cheerleader] come to our match?’” Roditi adds.
“I said, ‘Cameron? You got it?’ And we did.”
Norrie still did not see out the entire season, but did stay for another semester and ended his 2016-17 campaign with a perfect 10-0 record in Big 12 matches.
It closed out a college career that vindicated the decision by Roditi to recruit him after seeing him play at Roehampton, where his fierce competitive spirit was the first thing he noticed.
“I was going to talk to his coach and Cam walked away from us, like 200 yards in front of us,” Roditi says.
“He had just lost and the last thing he wanted to do was talk to anybody or even slow down for anybody. And he was just so mad that he lost his doubles match, he couldn’t even give us a second.”
But he clearly had talent and when he eventually arrived in Texas and started working with assistant coach Devin Bowen, that was abundantly clear.
“Once I got on court with him, right away it was really obvious that he was something special,” Bowen tells Yo.
“And the more I was around him, he was just absolutely a ruthless competitor and something I had never really seen, at least not at that age. And it was very apparent that he was going to be very, very good.”
It had not always been apparent. When Norrie moved to the UK as a 16-year-old, leaving his family in New Zealand behind and moving into digs to train at the National Tennis Center (NTC) in London, it was initially a pretty steep learning curve.
The lack of exposure to a wider talent pool meant he was trying to catch up on his peers, and making a bold move away from home was not a straightforward one.
“Living a normal life to moving on the opposite side of the world and, and going fully into tennis was tough for me,” Norrie admits.
“So I think it was a big shock for me, but definitely the LTA took care of me.
“I wasn’t winning as much as I would have liked. And I think maybe that was the reason why I went to college.”
Coach Bowen agrees.
“I think people when they’re young juniors, they think turning pro is going to be so glamorous, and it’s really not. Those first years can be pretty rough, and pretty lonely,” Bowen says.
“And for someone like Cameron, he just wasn’t mature enough to do it, he probably wasn’t quite good enough at the time to do it. So it would have been a tough schedule.
“And it may, in some ways have discouraged him enough [to give up], you never know what would have happened. But you’d like to think he would have found his way.
“But in college, he was able to enjoy it, to enjoy tennis, and at the same time, he was getting bigger, stronger, and his tennis level was starting to really shoot up. And so he was able to just do college, and then the transition was pretty fast towards tour level.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. He lived the college life at TCU that many would envy, playing tennis during the day and partying by night. But after one big night that ended in crashing his moped and missing a tournament through concussion, his coaches handed him an ultimatum about his behaviour. He quit partying and dedicated himself to tennis.
“I definitely matured a lot from the university,” Norrie adds.
“And I think I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my tennis I think at that age, and I didn’t really know my level yet. So I think it definitely gave me a lot of time to mature there.”
Five years after leaving college, Norrie stands on the edge of history, preparing for a Wimbledon semi-final against Novak Djokovic. It was probably worth giving up the parties.
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