Having never stepped on to a tennis court with Rafael Nadal in the opening three years of his ATP tour career, Cameron Norrie is starting to become familiar with the best. For a third time this year, Norrie stared down the Spaniard and showed the merits of his game, but ultimately he was unable truly to trouble Nadal, who moved into the fourth round of the French Open with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 win.
As they prepared to face each other once more, Norrie was asked in his press conference if a match against Nadal at Roland Garros is the toughest task in sport. He concurred, but he also offered an interesting account of what he took from their previous encounters: “I’ve learned that he’s actually a human being,” said Norrie. “He can miss shots. He can play short at times. But then you give him a little bit of room for him to find his forehand, he gets it going. He can be extremely dangerous. It can be absolute carnage going into the forehand there.”
In the early stages on Court Suzanne Lenglen, Nadal closely resembled the latter description. He was sharp, solid and present. The solidity of Nadal’s game only exposed the most vulnerable shot on the court – Norrie’s forehand. While Norrie dragged Nadal into some lengthy 20-shot exchanges and tried to step inside the baseline and impose his game where he could, his inability to consistently finish off points with his forehand made it too easy for Nadal. It quickly became the side that Nadal summarily broke down as he took the first break of serve and eventually the opening set.
Nadal is indeed human, even at Roland Garros, and he struggled with his own forehand early in the second set. As his length was diminished, he also sprayed forehand errors and Norrie pounced. He broke Nadal’s serve in consecutive games, including with a drilled backhand down-the-line winner to open up a 3-1 lead.
One of the essential factors in Nadal’s success is his ability to move on from his mistakes. Each time Nadal lost his serve, he broke back immediately. He took control of the second set by demonstrating the breadth of his court craft, winning two points with excellent drop-shot-to-lob combinations. Nadal closed the set out with one more moment of brilliance – a running backhand passing shot. Norrie never stopped searching for solutions and he even attempted a more risky approach. But, as for almost all others in Norrie’s position, there was no way back.
Cameron Norrie broke Rafael Nadal’s serve twice early in the second set but was unable to take advantage. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
It was a sentiment underlined by Victoria Azarenka on Twitter: “Watching Rafa play at Roland Garros to me is like watching your favourite movie. You enjoy it a lot but you kinda already know what is going to happen.”
Norrie leaves Paris on the back of some of the best months of his career and at the top of the game. He has finally achieved the true breakthrough on clay that he was always capable of. He boasts a 25-12 record for the year, which is currently the third most wins on the men’s tour and already by far the most ATP matches he has won in a season.
Earlier in the tournament, Norrie talked about the differences in his game between now and his first appearance in 2018. “I think I just grew to love the sport a little bit more,” he said. “And it’s become very addicting. It’s obviously tough. Week in, week out, you take a lot of losses and I think that’s kind of got me stuck, got me hooked on enjoying the game a lot more. Still wanting to prevail and to succeed, to go for more and want more.”
Norrie will head to the grass season in search of more, while Nadal’s attention will turn to the greater challenges ahead. He will next face 19-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner, who offered a brief challenge in the first set of their quarter-final last year, and who improves with each new tournament.
As Novak Djokovic continues to stroll through the draw, his next obstacle will also come from a young prospect. Djokovic easily defeated Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania 6-1, 6-4, 6-1 to set up a match with another 19-year-old Italian, Lorenzo Musetti, in the fourth round.
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