French Open 2021: Cameron Norrie beats Lloyd Harris for possible Nadal showdown

No1 Djokovic cruises into Round 3 but No1 Barty retires injured; Federer beats Cilic

Cameron Norrie
Cameron Norrie (Photo: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell)

It was certainly a stellar line-up for the first Thursday at Roland Garros, though the draw was soon denied its women’s former champion and world No1, Ash Barty, who arrived in Paris in great form and as one of the favourites for the title.

But she was forced to retire in the second set with a hip injury, following a swathe of her fellow Major champions out of the draw. Petra Kvitova suffered a freak accident off court to twist her ankle. Angelique Kerber, Bianca Andreescu and Garbine Muguruza all lost in the first round. And few could remain ignorant of the unfolding storyline of world No2 Naomi Osaka, pressed into withdrawal after her first-round win rather than have to face the media.

But while a couple of the big names had also lost early in the men’s draw, notably No4 seed Dominic Thiem and No7 seed Andrey Rublev, the three biggest names in men’s tennis, former champions Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, were still in action—and all on the same day after being drawn in the same half for the first time in a Major.

First, though, the only Briton left in either singles draw would attempt to get to the third round in Paris for the first time.

Cameron Norris, unseeded at a ranking of 45, had done just that in his last two Majors, at the 2020 US Open and this year’s Australian Open, and was showing some of his best ever form during 2021. He reached the finals in Estoril and Lyon, both clay events, plus the quarters in Barcelona, beating the likes of Thiem, David Goffin, and Marin Cilic on the way. He had notched up 24 wins, third this year behind only Rublev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Now he took on the tall South African Lloyd Harris, ranked 54, who was also enjoying a career-best season to break the top 50 with a final run in Dubai from qualifying. There, he beat Thiem, Kei Nishikori and Denis Shapovalov, but had struggled to make the same impression on clay following some injury problems.

Norrie started with a strong love hold, but Harris is one of the bigger servers in the draw, and produces power off the ground from the baseline too. Sure enough, his pressure on the Norrie serve produced a quick break, 2-1. Lloyd consolidated with a love hold, and certainly had control of the early rallies, showing his touch around the front of the court, too.

The Briton could not capitalise on his first break chance in the sixth game, with Harris going toe-to-toe in a long baseline exchange. A big forehand winner, and the South African led, 4-2. He went on to serve it out, 6-4.

Norrie had the first chance in the second set, earning three break points in the second game, and although he was unable to convert, he did break at the next opportunity, holding for 4-1. The leftie Briton’s backhand in particular was punching some holes in the Harris game, and after a love hold, he went on to serve out the set, 6-3.

Norrie was gaining in confidence, moving well, rushing the South African, and it earned him a break in the third game of the third, backed up by a swift hold, 3-1. And he was not done there, looking more than solid on serve with a love hold, and another break for the set, 6-3.

Harris, for all his fire-power and leggy speed, seemed at a loss for how to defuse the all-court resilience of Norrie, and was now going for too much and missing the mark. The Briton put his foot down and broke for a 4-2 lead, breaking once more, to love, for set and match, 6-2.

So the Briton reaches the third round at the French Open for the first time and in doing so, will have the chance to break inside the top 40 for the first time.

However, his chances of picking up more points this week look slim. For the odds are in favour of his facing Nadal, who would mark his 35th birthday against a very familiar opponent in the night session, Richard Gasquet.

Nadal had beaten the Frenchman in all 16 previous matches—and Gasquet was no longer the force he once was, ranked 53. It was hard to see any other outcome than a 102nd win for Nadal on his favourite court as his most successful tournament.

Norrie was pragmatic when asked if this was the biggest test in tennis:

“I think so. I think if you look at the stats, his record is pretty impressive. I think it changes nothing for me. Another great opportunity to have a crack at him.

“Obviously I’m going to be the underdog going in there, so no pressure on me, go out and see if I can execute my game and frustrate him. Another wonderful experience for me playing him, again, third round of a Slam, especially where he’s been very dominant… Tough task, yes.”

Meanwhile, top seed Djokovic had blasted past Pablo Cuevas, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, and will next play the 93-ranked Ricardas Berankis.

The top seed, then, was well on his way to the quarter-finals, but what of the old rival Federer, appearing in just his fifth match since leaving the tour 18 months ago to have double knee surgery? He had won just two matches this year, and his only win on clay was his first-round win over Denis Istomin.

Now, though, he faced a far more dangerous adversary, the unseeded Cilic. The former US Open champion, who beat Federer on the way to that title, last faced the Swiss in the 2018 Australian open final, a battle that went to five sets in Federer’s favour.

But while the Croat had not been at his best in recent months—he was 9-9 in matches—he had more matches and wins under his belt than Federer, and the kind of big, destructive game to fire through the untested Swiss.

Federer faced break points in the second game, but saved them, and went after the Cilic serve in the next, stepping inside the baseline to fire his return early and draw the error and break, 2-1.

The Swiss was not having it all his own way on his own serve, but held off the Cilic pace and got another break, 4-1. He served out the set to love, 6-2, in 30 minutes.

He looked ready to break at the start of the second, as well, but could not convert, and instead faced a barrage of hitting form Cilic to concede the break, 2-0. And he found himself facing more break points in the fourth game, but held.

Perhaps for the first time in his career, Federer was then warned for playing too slow—he went to the width of the court to get his towel while Cilic, a man renowned for his long serve build-up, was waiting to serve with still 14 seconds on the clock. Federer debated the issue with the umpire for some minutes, and continued at the change of ends, but it did him little good. His focus was disrupted, and Cilic made hay, breaking again to take the set, 6-2.

However, after some wayward play from the Swiss, he regrooved at the start of the third for a quick break, but he would rue missing his chance to convert one of a slew of break chances for another break. Instead he served at 3-2, and was broken back.

They would have to decide this one in a tie-break with two hours on the clock, and minutes later, Federer, now with a steely look on his face, aced it, 7-6(4).

That look, in fact, said it all. He did not afford Cilic one break part in the fourth set, and broke twice to take the win, 6-2, in impressive form, and against a man playing at an intense and high level.

Now Federer plays an unexpected and unfamiliar opponent, Dominik Koepfer, who beat No30 seed Taylor Fritz. The 2009 champion wanted time on court, and he got it, but after digging deep for this win, perhaps after all he can reach a quarter-final contest with Djokovic.

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