As he watched the ball sail beyond the baseline, Samir Banerjee dropped his racquet, put his hands on his head and turned to the area in the stands where his family, friends and coaches were sitting inside Court One at the All-England Lawn Club.
“I was pretty much in shock, and that’s sort of what my reaction indicated,” said Banerjee. “It was a really cool moment, and I didn’t really process it at first. It didn’t feel real.”
Banerjee was facing off against fellow American Victor Lilov in what was the first all-American Junior final at Wimbledon since Noah Rubin, another standout from the USTA Eastern Section, defeated Stefan Kozlov in 2014. Banerjee, who was unseeded, held off late rallies in each set to defeat Lilov 7-5, 6-4 and notch the biggest win of his young career.
Banerjee didn’t arrive in London with the highest expectations for himself. In fact, he had only played his first ever grass court tournament the week before in Roehampton, where he lost in the second round.
But Banerjee did reach the doubles final, which was a huge factor in his success the following week.
“I never played a tournament on grass, and some coaches were telling me that I had a good chance on grass because of the way I played, but I realized quickly that you had to play your opponent and not the surface,” he said. “Even though I lost early in singles, making the doubles final forced me to have to warm-up and prepare every day, and that helped me a lot in terms of being ready to do that at Wimbledon.”
After winning his first two matches, each in three sets, to begin his Wimbledon campaign, rain forced both the third-round and quarterfinal matches to be played in the same day. Banerjee would square off against fifth-seed Pedro Boscardin Dias of Brazil, the player whom had beaten him in Roehampton, but this time Banerjee turned the tables and defeated Dias 6-2, 6-1. Later in the day, Banerjee wasted no time in securing his spot in the semifinals with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Croatia’s Mili Poljicak
“I tried to play loose and free, and just go for my shots. I think the moment I knew I had a chance to do something special there was playing my third-round and quarterfinal match in the same day,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to win it all, but I was definitely feeling good.”
Banerjee would outlast France’s Sacha Gueymard Wayenburg in the semifinals before meeting Lilov in the championship match. Carrying the momentum he had picked up throughout the week, Banerjee raced out to a 5-2 lead in the opening set, only to see Lilov pull back even for 5-5. Banerjee recovered to win the next two games and close out the set.
“I played a bad service game in there, but I think after it got back to 5-5, to be able to take the first set 7-5 was crucial,” he said.
The second set played out nearly identical to the opener, as Banerjee once again found himself ahead 5-2. This time, though, he would not let Lilov off the mat. After Lilov held, Banerjee knew he had to finish off the match on his service game.
“I got a little tight on match point when I was serving at 5-3; closing out a match has a lot more pressure than closing out a set,” said Banerjee. “I really didn’t want it to get back to 5-4. I didn’t want to give him any breathing room, and so I was really happy to close it out when I did.”
The win is a significant milestone for the 17-year-old from New Jersey. With it, he moved up to No. 2 in the ITF Junior World rankings, and it even earned him a Wild Card into the qualifying draw of the Atlanta Open, where made his ATP World Tour debut.
He got his start playing tennis more than a decade ago, when he would join his father and his father’s friends for their weekly game on the weekends. A young Samir would hit with his dad after they were done playing, and took off from there. In addition to tennis, he played baseball and soccer growing up, but made the decision to focus on tennis around the age of 11.
“I went from playing with my dad, to playing with a coach and taking lessons,” he recalls. “I started at Garden State Tennis before moving on to Centercourt [Performance Tennis Academy]. I did the majority of my training in New Jersey until earlier this year, when I went down to Florida to train in those hot and humid conditions to prepare for tournaments that are played in those conditions.”
At Centercourt, Banerjee was a part of the Full-Time Academy which consists of an elite group of junior players, which helped provide the ideal environment for Banerjee to develop his game over the years.
“I haven’t been to Centercourt as much as I’d like over the last year, just because I have been traveling and haven’t been home much,” he said. “The group there has always been great, and that’s why I continue to stay there.”
Banerjee was part of the crop of players at Centercourt that have all worked together in the type of competitive environment that has made them all better, and he made that group and the Centercourt family proud with the way he played in London.
“There was so much excitement here at the club. We had texts going back and forth, and there was buzz amongst all the coaches and players,” said Centercourt CEO of Tennis Operations Conrad Singh. “Just watching the way he played, we flipped out. It was phenomenal to see what he was doing. Samir walked into Centercourt as a nine-year-old boy, and so watching him go from that to winning Wimbledon is mind-blowing. When he gets a chance, he’ll come down to the Club with his Wimbledon trophy. We’re just so proud of him.”
Banerjee has done the majority of his training in New Jersey, and will remain in the Tri-State area for his collegiate career as the soon-to-be high-school senior has committed to play at Columbia University.
The combination of top-level tennis and academics was too much for Banerjee to pass on, and he plans on joining the Lions starting in the Fall of 2022.
“I just thought it was the best fit for me,” said Banerjee. “Location-wise, it’s very convenient for me, and I really liked the coaches there. I think Howie [Endelman] is one of the best coaches in the country. He actually flew out to London to watch me play in the finals, so I can tell he cares a lot about his players.”
It’s been an exciting summer for Banerjee, and claiming a Wimbledon junior title is a memory he will surely cherish forever. As one of the top-ranked junior players in the world, he is a known commodity in the tennis world.
That can come with higher expectations and additional pressure, but rather than hide from it, Banerjee plans to embrace it.
“I know I’ll have a target on my back now and there will be more pressure, but I know I have to focus on what I need to do, and go in with the right mindset,” he said. “It’ll be different, and there may be more expectations, but I’m not going to put any extra pressure on myself. If anything, this win makes me feel looser because I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I just need to keep playing the way I’m playing and try to get better each day.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org