About half-an-hour into his Wimbledon semi-final against Novak Djokovic, Cameron Norrie had the United Kingdom dreaming again. The British No 1 was putting on a masterclass and had taken a one-set lead, 6-2, over the imperious, seemingly unstoppable defending champion.
After a near eight-decade wait for a home-grown male Wimbledon champion was brought to a dramatic end in 2013 by Andy Murray – winner again three years later – Norrie was creeping towards the cusp of another defining moment for British tennis.
Ultimately, it wasn't to be for Norrie, defeated in four sets, but it provided further proof he belonged at that level – at the absolute pinnacle of the men's game.
In fact, ample evidence already existed. There were the two titles already secured in 2022, in Delray Beach and Lyon, taking his career tally to four; the first was achieved in July last year in Los Cabos before his ultimate breakthrough: winning the rescheduled Indian Wells Masters last October.
It was also a year which saw Norrie reach a career-high No 8. He ended the year ranked 14th – a remarkable rise for a player who, by his mid-20s, was still placed just outside the top 70 at the start of the 2021 season.
“It’s been a great year, especially being able to back up last year was huge for me,” Norrie told The National from his home in London. “There were a lot of highlights, especially Wimbledon, making the semi-finals and having my family and friends there watching and supporting.
“But from there it was straight into focusing on the next events. As a tennis player you don’t really get to enjoy when you're doing well, but looking back, having some time off resting in London, I’ve been going through a few things and there are definitely some highlights.
“On the flip side, as a player you always want more and I think there are some areas where I could or should have done more, but you look at it and it was a great year. I want to do even more next year so there are a few things to work on as well.”
It is that level of introspection and determination to improve which helped propel Norrie to the top of the game.
That his rise has occurred post-lockdown is no coincidence. When the tennis season shut down in March 2020, Norrie made his way to New Zealand, where he lived until he was 16 and where his parents still reside. While there, he embarked on a rigorous regime which included running 10km every day for two months, aware that his fitness could become his most dangerous weapon.
As Norrie admitted himself, “I’m not a guy who’s going to go out and blast you off the court, I'm going to slowly work my opponent down point by point”.
In order to do that, though, he needed to get himself into the sort of physical condition that would allow him to outlast his rivals - no mean feat given the superhuman levels of fitness required to excel on the ATP Tour.
His dedication is certainly reaping rewards. Now established in the top 15, a Masters champion, a Grand Slam semi-finalist, and the undisputed British No 1, Norrie can reflect on a path less travelled to the upper echelons of tennis.
Born in South Africa to British parents, Norrie and his family moved to New Zealand when he was a toddler for safety reasons following a burglary at their home in Johannesburg. It was in New Zealand where his tennis talent was first nurtured, and he competed for the country at junior level.
However, a lack of funding saw Norrie move to London as a teenager to continue his development at the National Tennis Centre, and he soon started competing on the European junior tennis circuit.
Norrie struggled for success as a junior but it proved a blessing in disguise, opting to leverage his tennis talent into a sports scholarship to Texas Christian University, where he became the top-ranked player in the US collegiate system.
From there, it was time to take a crack at the professional ranks. It hasn't been smooth-sailing but there were early glimpses of what Norrie could be capable of, most notably on his Davis Cup debut in 2018.
Having only turned pro eight months prior and competing in his first professional match on clay, a 22-year-old Norrie – ranked No 114 – fought back from two sets down to defeat world No 23 Robert Bautista Agut.
The fact that Norrie has taken a more unconventional route and has been something of a late bloomer he hopes can show the younger generation that the path to tennis stardom can take many different forms.
“There’s obviously a lot of young Brits coming through, so hopefully I can provide some inspiration to show them that anyone can get to the top of the game, especially with the route that I chose, going through college,” he said. “It was a lot different a route than a lot of other players take.”
Reflecting on the past is not something Norrie wants to spend too much time doing; he's far more focused on the future. He has grown comfortable taking on the responsibility of being British No 1 both on and off the court – a status for a generation held by the country's greatest modern-era player in Murray – but his ambitions are far loftier.
“There are a lot more eyes on me now: going into Wimbledon as British No 1 then having the run I did, I feel like I am more well known in the UK. But for me, that is not the goal: it’s to be world No 1,” he said. “So, I’m not really thinking about that. There are still 13 players better than me so I need to improve.”
Preparing the best way possible for the new season will be important to Norrie's hopes of ultimately achieving those goals, which is why he will continue his training with a first appearance at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi this month.
The six-player tournament will also feature world No 1 Carlos Alcaraz, third-ranked Casper Ruud, world No 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas, eighth-ranked Andrey Rublev, and US Open semi-finalist Frances Tiafoe – so Norrie won't be lacking for competitive matches in the build-up to January's Australian Open.
“I wanted to be around the best players in the world and there's no better place to do that than in a beautiful city and with nice weather, playing outside and similar conditions to Australia,” Norrie said. “I don’t think I've played my best in Australia, so I wanted to try something different and I was fortunate to get the call up to this event.
“To play these important matches before even more important matches in Australia will help for my goals and my expectations so it’s cool to be involved in this tournament.”