Serving up Success: Tennis Prodigy, 6, Makes His Mark

He can't even tie his shoelaces, but Jan Silva can punch a one-handed back hand from the baseline, thread a passing shot for a winner and serve across a net over which he can barely see.

Jan is a 6-year-old tennis prodigy with great promise who started playing at age 1, though he's not sure why.

"I don't know, I was just born that way," Jan explained.

His mother Mari, a tennis coach, went into labor on a court in California. Then it wasn't long before Jan picked up a racket. He was hitting balls before he could even walk. Jan's talent has brought the whole family to France, where he is enrolled at a top junior tennis academy just outside of Paris.

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Jan inherited his mother's tennis skill. She played top-level tennis back home in Finland. And he got his father Scott's athletic ability. He was a college basketball star.

"With his hard work, athleticism and love of the game, he can do whatever he wants to do in tennis," Scott said of Jan.

'You Have to See this Kid'

At age 4, Jan impressed some greats of the game, including Grand Slam finalist Marcos Baghdatis, who saw Jan knocking a ball around, called his coach and told him, "you have to see this kid."

His coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was blown away. He said that he has never seen anyone with this kind of talent at such a young age.

"I had the feeling that the racket was just part of his body. I mean, he was completely natural with the racket," Mouratoglou said.

So the whole family moved lock, stock and barrel from Sacramento, Calif., to France, where Mouratoglou coaches Jan.

Jan, who said he wants to be tennis player "or a scientist," plays for at least two hours a day and does conditioning for an extra 45 minutes.

Jan's parents try to strike a balance in his life.

"You know, we make sure we keep it fun," Scott Silva said. "If we were forcing it, he wouldn't be happy. He'd walk around here with the meanest look on his face constantly. And he doesn't do that."

Jan said he enjoys tennis "because I'm really good," and accepts a challenge to play me in tennis. He sure enjoys winning, even by an unforced error against an aging correspondent who last played tennis before Jan was born.

But in many ways, he's just a 6-year-old. He goes to a nearby school every morning and has friends, and is capable of throwing a tantrum when he lets a ball bounce in. His parents are sure Jan is going to be number one in the world.

"I'm almost sure of it, but that's just me and my opinion is a little biased," Scott admits.

Translating Talent Into Success

For a neutral opinion we visited Nick Bollettieri, who heads his own tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla. The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy has nurtured some of the greats such as Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova.

Bollettieri was impressed by a video of Jan playing. "The little boy has excellent timing, seems to be very happy," Bollettieri said. "One of his biggest assets right here is his footwork. He has very nice footwork, hits the backhand with one hand. So if you put him on a scale of 1 to 10, just his enthusiasm alone puts him way up there."

Bollettieri, who has been coaching kids for more than 30 years, warns that early promise doesn't always translate into future success.

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