And yet, there was a moment – soon after he turned 20 – when Norrie’s career very nearly ran off the road. In a quite literal fashion.
This was in the middle of Norrie’s three-year spell at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where he was reading sociology with a less than single-minded focus. The TCU tennis team rejoiced in the nickname of the Horned Frogs, and Norrie – though still some way short of the force he would become – was already seen as a future frog prince.
As a sophomore student (which translates to second year, in British terms), Norrie was something of a party animal. “I was going out more than I probably should have been,” acknowledged Norrie, who is due to face David Goffin on Tuesday as he aims to become only the fourth British male this century to reach a major semi-final. “I was like a typical student there at TCU, enjoying myself a lot.”
Sooner or later, there was bound to be a flashpoint. It came late one Thursday evening, in the early months of 2016. After a big night out, Norrie decided to climb aboard his moped and buzz over to his girlfriend’s house. Unfortunately, he had barely started the engine before he parted company with the saddle.
“I didn’t even make it 20 metres when I ended up falling off and bashing my chin,” Norrie told the Behind the Racquet podcast in 2019. “I left the moped on the ground surrounded by blood everywhere. I called my head coach and explained what had happened. He absolutely shredded me to bits, as he should, and called a team meeting.
“I remember it so clearly; telling us that I could have easily been killed. It hit me hard. I had failed the concussion protocol test the next day. I was supposed to play the Dallas Challenger that weekend, but I had to pull out. Along with a couple other incidents, both coaches gave me their final warning or else I’d be kicked off the team.”
For an emerging talent like Norrie, the Dallas Challenger was a big deal: part of the ATP’s second-tier circuit, where the field included a pair of eminent Britons in Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans. Rather than competing with these seasoned pros, Norrie was back on campus, feeling sorry for himself and nursing six stitches in his chin.
Happily, though, the whole episode proved to be more than just a boozy mishap. Norrie called his parents and came clean about what had happened. Then he resolved to knuckle down and make the most of his time at TCU. In the final year, he won all his 10 matches and was ranked No 1 in the entire American college system. Today, he is considered a poster boy for this less-travelled road into professional tennis.
“At college I just grew up a lot,” Norrie has said, “[and] made mistakes that in the real world would have been costly.” Having met him at Roland-Garros in his final year of juniors, I can certainly believe it. My memory is of a pale and callow 17-year-old, quite unlike the athletic, self-assured character who arrived on our horizons three years later, coming through qualifying to reach the second round of the 2017 US Open.
Back then, Norrie had a surfer’s vocabulary, peppered with words like “sick” (a compliment, apparently) and “stoked”. Since moving to the UK, he has kept his drawling intonation – the legacy of childhood years spent in Auckland, New Zealand – but not so much the verbal flourishes, as he settles into a comfortable lifestyle in the Wimbledon area.
His TCU years will always be with him – and not only in a metaphorical sense. Tennis players are notoriously fickle, yet Norrie has only ever had one coach – Facundo Lugones, an imperturbable Argentine who was a couple of years above him in the Horned Frog pecking order (or should that be hopping order).
“I think it was my first year as a volunteer coach,” said Lugones, when asked about the moped incident. “I actually took him to his house that night and then the next day I came back and something happened to his chin, he fell off his moped. From then on he took things more seriously and it was like a wake-up call for him to start doing things a little bit better and maximising his opportunity to become a tennis player.
“I think sometimes you need that to happen to you to become more committed with your career and with your life and that’s exactly what happened with him.”