After despatching Grigor Dimitrov by a 6-2, 6-4 margin, Cameron Norrie stands within one match of becoming the first Briton to win Indian Wells. Despite the best efforts of Andy Murray, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, these Californian trophy cabinets have previously been a Brit-free zone.
These three household names all secured runner-up finishes at the BNP Paribas Open but failed to land the title. Now Norrie – the understated, Auckland-bred left-hander – has the chance to go one further.
At the start of this fortnight, there was so much interest around Emma Raducanu’s next tournament after her US Open triumph. Now Norrie is well placed to make this the second straight big American title to land in British hands. Have we ever had it so good?
Bulgaria’s Dimitrov was the latest man to be crushed under the wheels of the Norrie train. Like Diego Schwartzman in the previous round, he wasn’t left stranded by many explosive winners. But the sheer relentlessness of Norrie’s game offered no cheap points, and Dimitrov was already carrying miles in his legs after a couple of previous lung-bursters earlier in the week.
If Dimitrov has been described as “Baby Fed”, because of the similarity between his elegant technique and that of Roger Federer, then Norrie – who will become the new British No1 on Monday – has a touch of Rafael Nadal in his left-handedness and ferocious physicality.
You will probably remember that Nadal used to dominate Federer on slow courts, and there was a distant echo of those match-ups on Sunday. Indian Wells’s gritty playing surfaces make the balls pop up and hang in the air – just like they do at Roland Garros, only without the orange-stained socks.
As soon as this match-up was confirmed on Thursday, there was one obvious tactical question. How would the Dimitrov backhand stand up to a Spanish- style inquisition, filtered through Norrie’s looping, heavily topspun forehand?
It was a question that Dimitrov never solved. He started out by trying to drive the ball back with topspin, but as Federer discovered in those many near-misses at the French Open, the human shoulder is not designed to whirl the racket head-high on the backhand side.
Then Dimitrov switched to the less aggressive, more cat-and-mouse tactic of the backhand slice. It made no difference. Norrie swallowed up the backspin without even blinking. He could have been made of the same stone – Mesozoic granite, since you ask – as the spectacular mountains which surround the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
“I’m so happy,” said Norrie in his on-court interview. “I really enjoyed my time on the court today. Grigor didn’t bring his best today but I will take it. I was very solid, I hit a lot to his backhand and he was getting pretty frustrated.”
The early stages were as one-sided as they had been in the quarter-final against Schwartzman. Over the last couple of days, Norrie has entered a kind of zen state where he doesn’t overpress, but simply offers a combative, super-steady presence. More tennis matches are won and lost by mistakes than glorious winners, whether you are talking about your local club or these exalted stages. And Dimitrov was making plenty of mistakes. At one stage, he missed eight regulation shots in a single game.
Grigor Dimitrov could not cut out his errors against Cameron Norrie
Norrie did not arrive in California in the greatest of form three weeks ago. He had lost four straight matches on American hard courts. But a run to the final of San Diego served as the starter motor for this more remarkable feat. We are used to seeing Murray reach the latter stages of Masters 1000 events – he has won 14 of them, after all – but the only other British players to do anything like this in the last 15 years would be women: Johanna Konta, by winning the 2017 Miami Open, and then Raducanu last month.
The conditions here are so well suited to Norrie’s large-lunged approach that he might be considering moving to the Californian desert, like the so-called “Snowbirds” who travel down from Canada every winter. These second-homers are usually extremely affluent, but what the hell – he just won £466,000.
"I am becoming more comfortable in Indian Wells,” said Norrie afterwards interview. “It’s the biggest win of my career so far. I had a good game plan and it worked. It’s really cool to be in the conversation for the ATP Finals in Turin at this late stage of the season."
Asked about the watching Australian legend Rod Laver, who did the calendar grand slam in 1969, Norrie replied "It was so special to have him here. The last time he watched me was in the San Diego Open final and I got destroyed by Casper Ruud.
"I was thinking: ‘Oh, he must think I am awful at the game.’ So it’s nice to come out here, play good and show him I can play some decent tennis."
This is a remarkable story, which could get even better on Sunday if Norrie can land the title known as the “fifth major” and thus achieve another first for Great Britain – the unlikely new tennis superpower.