Cameron Norrie primed for toughest battle in tennis – beating Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros
You would not know it from the Russell Crowe movie, but the Romans used to have a kind of gladiator called a retiarius. This fellow fought with a trident in one hand, and a weighted net in the other. He would pin you down with one piece of kit, then finish you off with the other.
This remote memory crept into my mind while I was watching Cameron Norrie dispose of Lloyd Harris in four excellent sets on Thursday. Because Norrie is an unusual tennis player: a kind of two-for-one deal.
Norrie’s heavily topspun lefty forehand makes him resemble a cut-price Rafael Nadal – the 13-time French Open champion who happens to be his opponent on Saturday in Paris. He likes to finish points off by driving that forehand up the line, like the retiarius making the death thrust. But his backhand is a completely different matter: a flat hit which he uses to confound people, to entrap them in his net of groundstrokes, and set them up for the forehand kill.
“He is tricky to play against because he has this loopy lefty forehand which helps him find good angles in the court, and put the ball in awkward places,” said Leon Smith, Britain’s Davis Cup captain and the head of men’s tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association.
“Then he has a backhand which is the polar opposite to his forehand – it’s almost like a short-punched shot with no spin on it. So the ball stays very low. Every time the ball comes off his forehand and backhand, his opponent is getting a completely different ball.”
Of the two shots, it is the backhand which is the more unusual. Topspin has become the dominant tactic in modern tennis since the evolution of graphite rackets and polyester strings. Its biggest advantage is that you can hit the ball high over the net in confidence that the Magnus Effect – which makes a rotating ball curve in the direction of its spin – will bring it down again before it flies over the baseline.
There are benefits, though, to standing out from the crowd. Viewers of the Indian Premier League saw the Rajasthan Royals bowler Riyan Paragh experiment with a sidearm delivery in April. While bounce is usually seen as an asset in cricket – hence the preference for seamers who stand well over six foot tall – Paragh was working with the idea that doing something completely different might knock the batsmen out of their habitual patterns and cajole them into an error.
Likewise, Norrie’s bizarre backhand – which we might describe as a kind of funky bunt – is just a different look from almost anything else you might find on the tour. He is not completely Robinson Crusoe here, as Nick Kyrgios often bunts his backhand as well, but Norrie takes his shot to extremes. The effect is more like that of facing Jimmy
Connors, another left-hander who used to apply his Wilson T2000 – one of the earliest graphite rackets – to the ball with a huge swivel of the hips.
Norrie is far less flamboyant than Connors, however. He enjoyed cricket in his childhood years and there is something of the cover-drive in the way he drops his front shoulder and leans on the ball, keeping it low over the net.
This curious approach costs Norrie significant power, according to Jos Geerinck – an expert in tennis biomechanics who works for Golden Set Analytics. His wrists stay very stiff through the shot, rather than cocking and then releasing in the manner of a classic double-handed movement. And he also thrusts the racket out sideways in his set-up, instead of pointing it at the back fence, which leaves him with a short and slightly cramped swing.
Still, as Geerinck points out, there are compensations. “Norrie has tremendous touch on this shot, so he likes to step into the ball early, taking it on the rise and using his opponent’s power more than generating his own. He can rush you, and he can redirect the ball with confidence.”
This is a highly unconventional way to play tennis, but none the worse for that. Lord knows, the traditional methods have made little impact against Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier.