Could this 5-year-old be the future of tennis?
By Douglas Robson, Special for USA TODAY
THIVERVAL-GRIGNON, France — It's a hot June afternoon, and Jan Silva is doing things on a tennis court few his age ever have.
At one point, he laces a one-handed, topspin cross-court shot against his hitting partner, who lunges in vain. Jan curls his arm to punctuate the winner with — what else? — a fist pump.
"He's really playing to win," beams his father, Scott Silva. "There's ice cream on the line."
Jan, or "Jani" as his parents call him, is 5.
He also is the central player in an experiment that goes well beyond what most families would risk to build their child into a sports champion. Last August, the Silvas sold their house and two cars in Rancho Cordova, Calif., near Sacramento, and moved to France with their two other children so Jan could live and train full time — with all the family's expenses paid — at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy near Paris.
"Sold our home with everything in it," says Scott, a 38-year-old social worker who played basketball at Southern Oregon University. "We're getting Jani ready for something much bigger."
In doing so, the Silvas embarked on a potentially perilous path that families of tennis prodigies have taken with a few spectacular successes (such as Andre Agassi), some brief successes who flamed out (such as Jennifer Capriati before her comeback at age 20) and many more who never came close to being the champions their families envisioned.
Their patron, Patrick Mouratoglou, figures the estimated $140,000 a year he says he is spending on the Silvas will pay off in recognition and prestige for his academy if Jan becomes a star.
Mouratoglou, 37, also runs a management company. The Silvas, who referred to one of Mouratoglou's employees as Jan's "agent," say they have not signed any contract and have not been pressured to do so. "They just want us to see how things work out," says Jan's mother, Mari Maattanen-Silva, a former top tennis player in Finland.
Maattanen-Silva, 32, acknowledges that what she and her husband are doing is unusual, but she rejects the notion they are forcing tennis on their son. "Everyone thinks we're crazy, but when they come and actually meet us they are like, 'This kid loves it,' " says Mari, a tennis instructor who now teaches at Mouratoglou's academy. "We don't have to push him."
There's no blueprint for raising a tennis champion, but the formula often involves a kid swinging a racket before being able to read or write. Many go to big academies, though rarely as early as Jan. Parents usually are heavily involved.
Agassi's father, for example, dangled tennis balls in his crib to sharpen his eye-hand coordination. By age 6, the future eight-time Grand Slam tournament champion was doing interviews and exhibitions. Tracy Austin had her image on the cover of Tennis Week magazine before her fifth birthday; she won the U.S. Open at 16.
The Silvas' decision to uproot themselves and hitch their future to a 4-foot, 60-pound boy who likes SpongeBob SquarePants might seem bold. The examples of overbearing and fanatical parents in tennis — and numerous celebrated flameouts by young players — might make it seem reckless.
Scott, who was a counselor in the Sacramento County Welfare Department, and Mari, who taught tennis at the Gold River Racquet Club near Sacramento where the family spent much of its time, are friendly and attentive to their three children. The others are Kadyn, 11, — also a talented player training at Mouratoglou — and Jasmin, 3.
The Silvas passionately believe that Jan, and perhaps Kadyn, will be champions.
"Best-case scenario," Scott says, "is they both win Grand Slam titles. With the athleticism that Jani and Kadyn have, they can do whatever they want to do in tennis."
And the worst-case scenario?
"Jani wins a bunch of Grand Slam titles and Kadyn plays professional tennis but isn't as successful as he'd like to be, and then does whatever he wants," Scott says.
California coach Robert Lansdorp, who helped develop top players Austin, Pete Sampras and Maria Sharapova, says predicting such success for someone so young is a stretch. "I couldn't tell Maria was going to win Wimbledon when she was 14-15," Lansdorp says of Sharapova, 20, who was 17 when she won the Wimbledon title in 2004. She went on to win the 2006 U.S. Open.
Except for Austin, who landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 13, Lansdorp says none of his students looked like potential champions before they were teenagers. And even then, some didn't.
"You don't find that out when a kid is 5 years old," he says.
'They almost have to do it'
The Silvas say Jan's talent was evident early. Barely 1, he often demanded to see a video of a favorite player, James Blake, and soon began hitting balls for hours against a door in the Silvas' home.
The Silvas say Jan's training options at the local club where Mari taught tennis were limited. They were invited to the famed IMG/Bollettieri Tennis Academy after sending a video of Jan to academy officials, but they eventually decided the 250-student academy in Bradenton, Fla., was too big to give Jan enough attention.
Scott says IMG was wary of attracting negative publicity by working with a boy who had not entered first grade. He also says it wasn't willing to help pay for housing, education and coaching, which typically run about $50,000 a year at the academy.
Some very talented kids land scholarships or discounts at the academy — Agassi did when he went to Bollettieri as a teen — but most do not.
Mark Gorski, the IMG agent who received the video of Jan, says IMG was not prepared to give financial help to such a young prospect.
The Silvas got a break when 2006 Australian Open runner-up Marcos Baghdatis, who had trained at the Mouratoglou Academy as a teen, saw Jan play at a youth tournament in California 16 months ago. He contacted Mouratoglou, who flew the Silvas to France for a tryout and later invited them to return.
The Silvas are not wealthy; Scott says Kadyn's game (he was a top 10-and-under junior in Northern California by 8) has been hurt by a lack of money for coaching.
The Mouratoglou Academy takes care of the Silvas' every need, including housing in a small chalet just overlooking the facility's 16 courts, meals, coaching, court time and equipment. The Silvas say they would be crazy not to take the opportunity to fulfill what they say is Jan's burning desire to play tennis.
"What do you do when you have this kid that shows this unbelievable gift?" asks Scott, who says the family still rents a home in Northern California and visits regularly.
"They almost have to do it for the money part," says famed instructor Vic Braden, from whom the Silvas sought advice last year.
Jan seems to enjoy life at the academy, and doesn't appear to grasp the consequences or pressures of his being there. Each day, he trots down a small hill from the Silvas' three-bedroom, one-bath home to the academy's courts.
Jan, who has deep brown skin and shocks of blond hair, practices for an hour with Mari, attends three hours of school and returns for another two hours of tennis in the afternoon. That's followed by an hour or so of physical training such as soccer or coordination drills. At lunch in the academy's restaurant, he smiles often and pals around with older kids.
Asked about his favorite players, Jan says, "(Roger) Federer and James Blake."
"Because they are really good."
Why not Baghdatis?
"He never wins any of his tournaments." (Actually, Baghdatis has won a couple.)
During his afternoon practice, Jan — in academy-provided Nike shoes and clothes — scampers around the court against Mouratoglou. He nearly breaks down laughing when Mouratoglou makes him sprint from corner to corner. Not surprising for a child of kindergarten age, he also is prone to temper tantrums, racket tosses and sulking when he makes mistakes.
"Braden warned us that he will go through a lot of rackets," Mari says with pride and apology.
Gripping a racket nearly the length of his body, Jan's fluid strokes and timing belie his age and size. He serves overhand, approaches the net to volley and can put topspin on shots, including his natural one-handed backhand.
Braden calls Jan one of the best 5-year-old players he's seen.
"He likes competition," Mouratoglou says. "He always wants to win. He has charisma. You look at him, and you understand immediately that he's not like everyone. These are the characteristics of a future champion."
Mouratoglou admits pinning hopes on someone so young has left him open to criticism.
"I'm just saying that he's different, that he has unbelievable talent, that the parents are focused," he says. The Silvas "have a goal. I have the same goal. The kid has the same goal. We work in the same direction; it's just a matter of time."
Treating Jan 'like a pro'
The delicacies of trying to build a champion aside, Mari says she and her husband are "treating (Jan) like a pro." Jan has two coaches in the Sacramento area, another in Florida and Braden, who continues to consult with them as a mental coach.
Braden, who runs the Vic Braden Academy and is a licensed psychologist in California, says the Silvas must tread cautiously. "They have to be very careful with (Jan) because people fawn over him. I can list a lot of kids that were destined for great things and never made it."
Says Austin, now 44: "If you set your sights on No. 1 or top 10, there is not much margin for error. If you're (ranked) 300 in the world, is that a failure? The key is to know what you're getting into beforehand. Don't say you're going for No. 1. Don't just focus on that one kid. Don't make that kid feel like the breadwinner."
The Silvas say they won't be disappointed if Jan eventually decides tennis isn't for him. "I just want him to stay healthy and be a good person and hopefully become a good tennis player, because he's working so hard," Mari says.
"Jan has chosen tennis, and tennis in a huge way has chosen him," Scott writes in an e-mail after the Silvas were interviewed. "We are just doing our very best to make sure that he stays grounded."
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