Winning Junior Wimbledon Is ‘Crazy’, but It’s Still ‘Just the Juniors’

WIMBLEDON, England — As Novak Djokovic and Matteo Berrettini played the first set of the Wimbledon men’s singles final Sunday afternoon on Centre Court, two young Americans were wrapping up the boys’ singles final, 100 yards and also a world away.

In the first all-American boys’ singles final at the All England Club since 2014, Samir Banerjee of Basking Ridge, N.J., defeated Victor Lilov 7-5, 6-3 on No. 1 Court.

Banerjee, 17, dropped his racket and put his hands on his head in disbelief when he converted his third championship point, looking much like any other Grand Slam winner once he became “Samir Banerjee, Wimbledon champion.”

“It has a good ring to it,” Banerjee said with a laugh in an interview. “It’s crazy. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. I know it’s going to be there forever now. It’s a lot. It’s amazing. But it’s just the juniors, you know?

“Obviously it’s a very good accomplishment, but it’s motivating me to try to play pros and try to get my name as a men’s singles champion,” he added. “It’s a great feeling.”

Both players were unseeded in the draw and represent a surprising success for American tennis as it desperately seeks another top men’s player. Andy Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open win stands as the last major singles title for an American man.

But three of the top-four ranked American men, led by No. 32 Reilly Opelka, were boys’ singles Grand Slam champions in their youth. Opelka won at Wimbledon in 2015 and Taylor Fritz won at the U.S. Open that same year. Sebastian Korda won the 2018 Australian Open boys title.

Winning a junior Grand Slam title takes considerable talent, but does not guarantee a successful professional career. Looking at the list of boys’ singles title winners at a Grand Slam is a mix of a “who’s who” and just “who?”

Roger Federer won the Wimbledon boys’ singles title in 1998, but no winner since has evolved to win a men’s title here. Ashleigh Barty, a 2011 champion on the girls’ side, won the women’s singles title here on Saturday, becoming just the third woman to have won both.

The last two players in an All-American Wimbledon boys’ final seven years ago have yet to crack the top 100. While Banerjee and Lilov played, the 2014 champion Noah Rubin, now ranked 286th, was waiting to play a qualifying match in Newport, R.I. The 2014 runner-up, Stefan Kozlov, is now ranked 347th. In his most recent tournament last week, he reached the final of a Futures event in Weston, Fla., but the final was rained out.

The 2013 Wimbledon boys’ champion, Gianluigi Quinzi of Italy, recently retired from the sport at age 25.

“When you win so much as a young man, losing becomes a tragedy,” Quinzi told Gazzetta dello Sport in an interview earlier this month.

Even within draws, the crops can be mixed. Three of the four semifinalists from the 2016 Wimbledon boys’ event have established themselves in the ATP top 20: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Denis Shapovalov and Alex de Minaur. The fourth semifinalist, the American Ulises Blanch, has yet to crack the top 200.

Lilov, who said he had “wasted a lot of time on the internet” looking at past junior results, said he knew that his success at Wimbledon wouldn’t necessarily carry forward.

“A lot of the juniors that did well here did go on to become good pros, but a lot of them didn’t go on to become good pros,” Lilov said. “And some who didn’t do well or didn’t even play became top pros, so I don’t think this tournament is really going to determine my career path. It could help boost it, but it’s up to me to see what I do, and if I improve my game enough.”

Banerjee, a rising high school senior, has committed to playing collegiate tennis for Columbia University. He said his win on Sunday would encourage him to enter more pro tournaments.

“College is still in the picture right now, but I’ll try to play a couple pro tournaments and see how it’s going,” he said. “I think I can decide on what I want to do in my future after that. Even if I go to college, I’ll definitely try to give it a shot on the pro tour after college, for sure.”

Lilov, who was born in London, Ontario, to Bulgarian parents and now lives in Delray Beach, Fla., turned professional three years ago at age 14.

“It’s just a junior tournament,” he said. “We’ll see who develops their game the most.”