Samir Banerjee Q&A: From Basking Ridge, N.J. to the All England Club
The list of players who have lifted the Wimbledon boys’ singles trophy is a venerable who’s who in the sport over multiple generations: Bjorn Borg. Stefan Edberg. Roger Federer. Gael Monfils. Denis Shapovalov. Now, you can add Basking Ridge, New Jersey’s Samir Banerjee to that esteemed group. On July 11, the 17-year-old defeated fellow American Victor Lilov—who has also trained in the Garden State—in straight sets, 7-5, 6-3, to capture undoubtedly the biggest win of his young career. (Incidentally, he is the second Wimbledon boys’ champion in seven years with USTA Eastern ties, after Long Island native Noah Rubin emerged victorious at the All England Club in 2014.)
The title is a culmination of several strong results, as Banerjee has been trending steadily upward. Prior to his win on the grass, he counted five ITF junior titles to his name, four of which came in 2020. He also reached two back-to-back finals this past March. We spoke with Banerjee—now the No. 2 junior in the world—about his stunning victory, and how his training and development as a young Eastern junior in New Jersey prepared him to compete at such a high level.
Congratulations on becoming the 2021 Wimbledon boys’ champion! Almost two weeks later, has it sunk in?
Banerjee: Thank you. I think now it's starting to sink in a little more, but the first couple of days after, it didn't really feel real, not at all. I still can’t believe I won it, but it’s great.
All five of your ITF junior titles have come on clay. After taking an early loss on that surface in the boys’ singles tournament at Roland Garros, what were your expectations for playing on grass?
Banerjee: I really didn’t know. [Juniors] don’t really play on grass. Before the tournament I practiced a couple times at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in New Jersey. They have grass courts, but their courts are really different [from Wimbledon]. Then I played at Roehampton, the warm-up tournament before Wimbledon, and I lost in the second round. That definitely raised some questions, like if I could do well on the surface. So the expectations were pretty low. That first match I was still a little tight. I fell a couple times. [But] just getting a win under my belt was huge. And then in the third round I beat a guy I lost to the previous week. I think that day is when it really, really started to click.
What do you think were the keys to your success once it did click?
Banerjee: The biggest thing was just me committing to coming forward to the net. I got passed a couple of times, but I think on grass, coming forward and playing aggressive tennis is the most important thing. Putting pressure [on an opponent] gives you the edge. It doesn't even have to be a great ball. It just has to be deep. And that's kind of what I was doing. Whenever I saw even the smallest opening, I tried coming forward to finish at the net.
How would you generally describe your playing style?
Banerjee: I’d say I’m an all-court player. Because I can play aggressive. I like coming in, but other times I can just be consistent and play defense, force an error. I don’t like to do just one thing. I like to mix it up, hit different shots, use my touch, use my variety.
What was the biggest challenge you faced over the course of the tournament?
Banerjee: I think in my second round, I was up 6-1, 5-2, and I had two match points on my opponent’s serve, and he saved them. And then he came all the way back and I lost that second set 7-5. So that could have been pretty bad. I think I handled that pretty well [to win the third set 6-1]. Before, I'd probably just get really flustered and maybe throw it away. I realized I was at Wimbledon, so I tried to gather myself.
Your opponent in the final was also able to save a couple match points on his own serve before you were able to serve it out. What did you tell yourself after losing those points?
Banerjee: Yeah, it was tough. I could definitely feel myself getting tight, especially on his serve. I think he had one good serve [on a match point] and then I missed a return. And then on the match points I had on my serve, I double faulted the first one. [After that] I just said to myself, “You gotta make him play.” Because I was just giving him free points. I said, “If he hits a winner, it's too good. But you shouldn't make an error.”
Do you remember the match point and how it went down? Is it all a blur?
Banerjee: It feels a little bit like a blur. I just remember he hit the backhand long and I just...didn't really believe it. I obviously knew I was in the final and I knew that it was a match point, but just when the moment came, it didn't really feel real. For a while there, I was just in shock.
Let’s talk a little bit about what got you to that moment. You grew up in New Jersey—when did you first pick up a racquet?
Banerjee: I first started playing at age six, with my dad. It wasn't anything formal, just some hitting at the local courts. My dad has a group of friends that he always plays with. I used to come along and when they were finished he'd keep playing with me. And then, when I was eight or nine, I started going to clinics.
What advantages has the New Jersey tennis ecosystem provided you?
Banerjee: There are a lot of good players here! The competition is very good. I was almost 16 when I started competing in ITF tournaments, so before that I was doing USTA National tournaments, then also Eastern tournaments, the Super Sixes. I think competing on that USTA circuit is really important [for development]. It definitely helped shape me as a competitor and as a person.
And what are some of the local facilities that have helped you develop your game?
Banerjee: I started out at Garden State Tennis Center and then went to Centercourt Tennis Academy. It was really good training. Centercourt really incorporated fitness and they had more coaches. We would do a lot of running. It really taught me discipline.
Who were some of your coaches in the area? How did they help you improve?
Banerjee: At Garden State I worked with Ilya Kazakin-Kuteyev, who really helped me develop a foundation. Another one of my first coaches was Matt Sabo, and he was my coach for a while, up until recently. He definitely helped instill confidence in me that I could compete at the highest level. He saw me go through all the stages: local tournaments, sectionals, nationals, international. He’s always believed in me. Now I’ve been working with Carlos Esteban, who used to be at Brunswick Hills Racquet Club. He’s based in Florida, so I go down there for training. Recently, when I’ve been in New Jersey, I’ve been training with Rich Reyes. He’s really been helping me with forehands, just hitting through it. I think improving my forehand was one of the biggest things that helped me on the grass.
You mentioned that your dad introduced you to the game. How has your family supported you as you’ve climbed the rankings?
Banerjee: They’ve always been supportive. Especially my dad. When I was younger, he’d always sign me up, he’d drive me to all these foreign places—Long Island and Buffalo—for tournaments. He was as invested as I was. So yeah, it was definitely a family effort to get here. And without them, I definitely wouldn’t have. So I really, really appreciate it.
What would you say are the biggest challenges of competing at this level?
Banerjee: You have to make sacrifices. Tournaments would often start on Friday nights, Saturday nights. I couldn’t hang out with friends a lot, I wasn’t free. And then also with school, you’ll have homework. Being on the ITF circuit, you have to make even more sacrifices. You're on the road for weeks. I don't do regular school anymore. I do online school just because it's just really tough. You’re not home enough. And that definitely takes a lot of adjusting. But I think at the end of the day it's worth it if you're following what you're passionate about and doing what you love. And it definitely gives me a sense of what it's like on the pro tour, if I want to go there.
Do you want to go there? What goals have you set for yourself in the sport?
Banerjee: I’m looking forward to playing Kalamazoo and then the US Open Juniors. I’m definitely going to try to throw some more pro events in there just to see. I am committed to Columbia University [in Fall 2022]. But I definitely want to have a future in tennis and I want to give it a shot. If anything, Wimbledon really showed me that I can compete and win at the highest level.
In addition to Banerjee, USTA Eastern juniors Madison Sieg and Valencia Xu also made the trip across the pond to compete in the 2021 French Open and Wimbledon junior tournaments. Sieg reached the quarterfinals of the Wimbledon girls' doubles tournament (with partner Elizabeth Coleman) and Xu reached the quarterfinals of the French Open girls' doubles tournament (with partner Mei Hasegawa). Banerjee also reach the quarterfinals of the French Open boys' doubles (with partner Ozan Colak).
Photos courtesy Usha Banerjee