Great Britain’s Wimbledon hope Cameron Norrie might have grown up in South Africa, were it not for a life-threatening gun-related incident nearly 25 years ago.
In the mid-1990s, Norrie’s Scottish father, David, and Welsh mother, Helen, found work in a bioscience lab in Johannesburg, where Cameron was born.
In some parallel universe, they remained in that sports-mad country, and Norrie could have become a very different athlete, perhaps a fly-half in rugby union’s Currie Cup?
But Johannesburg at the time had a deserved reputation for being one of the most crime-infested cities in the world. And as David Norrie told reporters this week, he and his wife decided to leave South Africa after a hair-raising night, which brought a sense of danger too close to home.
“We lived in a kind of complex with electric barbed wire fences,” explained David Norrie. “So, it was relatively safe, but there was an automatic gate when you were driving.
“One night our neighbor was basically the victim of a carjacking. They put a gun to his head and there was a baby in the back of the car. Somehow we decided at that point that this was not the place to raise children and we started making plans to emigrate. We had many friends who had been robbed.
“I guess moving to somewhere like New Zealand, we see a change in lifestyle, a very active lifestyle. It was one of the best decisions we made in terms of space and where to raise a family. If we had stayed in South Africa, I guess things might have been different.”
In the long run, South Africa’s loss turned out to be Britain’s gain. New Zealand simply does not have the tennis infrastructure to support an ambitious player. And when it became clear that 16-year-old Norrie was up there with the best juniors in the world, the family made another difficult but very successful decision. They sent him to London to train.
These were not easy times for Norrie, who initially found himself lodged in one of the small cottages at the National Tennis Center in south-west London. Still, he now looks back on these early difficulties as an important phase of development. Having been thrown into an unknown city at such a young age, he was forced to be self-sufficient.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I’m here today,” Norrie told reporters this week. “It was difficult for me to go from New Zealand and be in school and live a normal life to move to the other side of the world. It was a big shock for me, but definitely the LTA [Lawn Tennis Association] They took care of me and managed me the best they could.
“I was living in the NTC and then I moved to stay in a flat with Oli Golding [who won the junior US Open title in 2011 but made only a brief foray into pro tennis]. And then I lived with his agent for a bit, too. Cindy [Morphy]. So I was lucky to have those people there to get out of the NTC and use it just for training.”
Golding, who now runs a small business, remains one of Norrie’s close friends. In fact, he was at Norrie’s flat on Wednesday morning to drop off a Fulham football shirt for her. “It’s an ongoing debate which football team Cam supports,” Golding told Telegraph Sport. “The other day he mentioned three [Newcastle United, Fulham and Rangers] so I’m trying to push it in the right direction.
“The fact that Cam wasn’t a shining star as a teenager might have served him well in the long run,” added Golding, who now regrets turning pro on the heels of his own more successful youth career, when he might otherwise. having accepted an American college scholarship like Norrie did.
“Go to UTC [Texas Christian University in Fort Worth] served him well. He made great strides physically in those years. When we lived together, he could run for days, but he was skinny and scrawny. I didn’t see him for a few years, and then the first thing I noticed was how strong he looked.”
From Johannesburg to Wimbledon, Norrie has certainly taken the scenic route. But he would have been half the player without so many adventures along the way.