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.

"What happens? Do they develop physically, do they get hurt, do the parents run out of funds, too much pressure, does the boy meet a girl, the girl meets a boy," Bollettieri asked. "You can't predict at 5, 6, 7 or 8 that you have a champion and say, they will be the champion of the world."

Bolliettieri has coached nine world champions, including Agassi and Boris Becker, who won Wimbledon in 1985 at age 17. He was the youngest person ever to win a Grand Slam Title.

Jan Silva said Wimbledon is his first goal "because you get a lot of money."

Picking Up Their Lives

Money is what brought the Silva family from California to France. Jan's brother Kayden is 10 years old and also a tennis talent.

"We had no money to fund our older son's tennis," Scott said. "Patrick said he'll now fund the tennis for both boys."

Mouratoglou pays for everything, not just tennis. The kids get extra academic tuition in a school house next to the courts. The family lives in a chalet on the academy campus. They eat meals at the cafe. If Jan or Kayden if successful, Mouratoglou will take an agent's cut. If they fail, Mouratoglou gets nothing.

"I don't know one tennis parent in the world who would have turned down this kind of offer," Scott said, assuring us that he is doing this all for Jan.

"Well, we gave up a big home in California to come and live in a small, small place in France," Scott said. "So when you say are we doing this for him? Everything we do is for our children."

Mouratoglou has seen a lot of top players in his day and he said that the parents are nearly always there from the first day often to the last one.

Tracy Austen, who won the U.S. Open at 16 years old, was one of five tennis playing siblings. Richard Williams, father to Serena and Venus Williams, has nurtured two daughters to grand slam triumphs. Will Jan Silva's parents taste the same success?

"For me, everything is there," Mouratoglou said. "Now it's up to us to make the right work at the right moment and to let him grow and to bring him to the top."

While Jan has great promise for success, his parents say they will not be disappointed if he decides to quit tennis.

"You can't force a child to play," Mari Silva said. "You know Jan is the one who chose to play tennis. If he chose to play baseball, then we would do baseball. And if he chose just to be a normal kid? Then he could do that. But, you know — he is!"

But Jan is not a normal kid. Normal 6-year-olds don't fire one-handed back hands. But it's too early to say if this talent will be a blessing or a curse.