Cameron Norrie reaches Indian Wells final after straight-sets win over Grigor Dimitrov

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Cameron Norrie, of Britain, reacts after defeating Grigor Dimitrov, of Bulgaria, in a semifinal match at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Indian Wells, Calif. - AP
Cameron Norrie, of Britain, reacts after defeating Grigor Dimitrov, of Bulgaria, in a semifinal match at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Indian Wells, Calif. - AP

Cameron Norrie is in within one match of becoming the first Briton to win Indian Wells and so going one step further than Andy Murray, Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski ever managed. In the past, the trophy cabinets in California have been a Brit-free zone.

These three big names all secured runner-up finishes at the BNP Paribas Open but failed to land the title. We will find out on Sunday if Norrie – the understated, Auckland-bred left-hander – can go one further and thus build on Emma Raducanu’s feats in New York, claiming the very next big title in the USA. Have we ever had it so good?

Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov was the latest man to be crushed under the wheels of the Norrie train, losing 6-2, 6-4. 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 Saturday. 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 Mesozoic granite as the spectacular mountains which overlook 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.

"I am becoming more comfortable in Indian Wells. 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 finals in Turin at this late stage of the season."

The early stages were as one-sided as they had been in the semi-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 of Bulgaria reacts after losing a point to Cameron Norrie of Great Britain in their semifinal match at the Indian Wells tennis tournament on October 16, 2021 in Indian Wells, California. - AFP
Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria reacts after losing a point to Cameron Norrie of Great Britain in their semifinal match at the Indian Wells tennis tournament on October 16, 2021 in Indian Wells, California. - AFP

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 at last month’s US Open.

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

Another traditional connection exists between this area around Palm Springs and the Hollywood elite, who used to be forbidden to go beyond the Californian state boundary in the golden age of cinema.

The audience on Saturday included Charlize Theron, star of Bombshell among many other movies. With almost 8m followers on social media, Theron owns a considerably higher public profile than the man she was watching, given that Norrie started this season at the unspectacular ranking of No71. Now he looks likely to reverse those digits, starting next week at No17 at the worst.

It is a remarkable story, which could get even better on Sunday night if Norrie can land the title known as the “fifth major” and thus achieve another first for Great Britain – the unlikely new tennis superpower.

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