Samir Banerjee is Jr Wimbledon champ: ‘Felt my roots today’

With a Junior Grand Slam title under his belt, Banerjee’s route to the professional stream is clear. But with Columbia University lined up next year, he’s still contemplating his decision to enter the US college tennis stream.

Samir Banerjee with his Wimbledon trophy.

The call came just as the ball bounced. It was out. At once, he dropped his racquet and raised his hands to his head, a bemused smile on his face. Then, looking up towards his uncle in the players’ box, the 17-year-old started shouting in disbelief but the words were drowned out by the packed crowd inside Court 1.

Samir Banerjee had just become the new Junior Boys Wimbledon champion.

“I was saying ‘are you kidding me’. I said it three or four times. I just couldn’t believe it. I was in shock, and then that shock turned into happiness, and then I got excited. It just made me very happy,” he told The Indian Express.

Banerjee is an American player of Indian origin — his father is from Assam and mother from Andhra Pradesh — and has captured the attention of fans from two nations. But if he wasn’t too conscious of his roots before, he “definitely felt it today,” during the 7-5, 6-3 win over fellow American Victor Lilov.

“Just looking into the crowd, there were a lot of Indians there, supporting me a lot. I really appreciated that. Some were shouting very loudly, some asked me for photographs afterwards. I’m obviously not from India, I’m American. But having Indian relatives and parents, it makes me appreciate the culture and everything that goes with it,” he said.

Incidentally, four Indian players have won Junior Grand Slam titles: Yuki Bhambri (2009 Australian Open), Leander Paes (Wimbledon 1990 and US Open 1991), Ramesh Krishnan (French Open and Wimbledon 1979) and Ramanathan Krishnan (Wimbledon 1954).

For Banerjee, a New Jersey resident, this was his second Junior Grand Slam appearance — the first at this year’s French Open ended in an opening-round loss, lowering expectations in London.

“I was contemplating if I could compete at the Grand Slam level because this is where the best players in the world are. I just wanted to get my foot in the door and win one round. Then I won another and I started building confidence. I had more belief in my game. And then I found myself in the final and I played my best tennis today,” Banerjee said.

However, Sunday came with its share of nerves. He recalls waking up earlier than usual, and carrying the anxiety till the third game. It was his second service game and it lasted 16 points before he could hold serve. “I think we were both nervous in the start, we were just trying to get a feel. But that game helped me loosen up and take my chances,” he said.

Then, Banerjee held the most important service game of his life so far — for the title. “It sounds unbelievable and it just hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s crazy to think that I’ve achieved that,” he said.

The 6-ft-2 teenager has the tendency of coming up to the net to finish points early, and that’s why grass courts suit his playing style. But at the same time, his approach is measured and effective.

On Sunday, he won 17 of his 19 approach shots. “He has very good and quick hands, and impressive touch-play,” India Davis Cup player N Sriram Balaji, who had trained with Banerjee in Germany last month, said.

“He likes coming up to the net, which is something very unusual for young players who like to stay at the baseline. But he’s got the mentality to back himself up at the net and that makes a big difference. Besides, on grass, volleying is key,” Balaji said.

This time, Banerjee had also come with an improved forehand. “His backhand is a weapon but he was neutral on the forehand. The coach worked with him and he learnt how and when to pull the trigger,” Balaji said.

With a Junior Grand Slam title under his belt, Banerjee’s route to the professional stream is clear. But with Columbia University lined up next year, he’s still contemplating his decision to enter the US college tennis stream.

“I have to re-evaluate my options. I’m playing well and this is a really good stepping stone. I’m going to play more professional tournaments to see where I stand, but as of now college is definitely in the picture. I think it’ll be a good step for me, but this is a good step to the pro route. I’ll have to make a decision later on because I still have another year before I go to college,” he said.

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