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The Tiger Woods of Tennis?

Rene Gutel

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Already a prodigous player
(Rene Gutel)
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Jan Silva practices at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy
(Rene Gutel)

You may not have ever heard of little Eldrick back in 1981 when he first appeared in an issue of Golf Digest -- but you sure know him now: Tiger Woods, one of the most successful golfers of all time.

This weekend, as the tennis world is watching the French Open, we're going to tip you to a pint-sized tennis prodigy. Pay attention -- he might be the courts in a decade or so. It's 6-year-old Jan Silva of California.

He's there in the stands at the French Open this weekend. But who knows, in a decade or so he might be there on the courts. Rene Gattel has his story:

When the French Open starts this weekend, one of the spectators will be 6-year-old Jan Silva, a tennis prodigy from California currently living outside of Paris. His family left the United States for Silva to train at one of the world's top tennis academies.

Jan is still less than four feet tall and can barely see over the net -- but even from the baseline of this full-sized tennis court, he sends back each serve from his coach. His forehand is surprisingly powerful. I'm watching from the sidelines and I ask him what he's practicing.

"My forehand," he says. "I don't know how to explain it but I know what it is. It's a stroke."

He goes back to practicing, taking advice from his two coaches at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, in Thiverval-Grignon, a postcard-perfect village outside of Paris where centuries-old stone buildings are tucked amid rolling hills. The Mouratoglou Academy is an elite tennis school, with 17 courts.

"Firm wrist!" yells Scott Silva, the boy's father, who is watching from the sidelines. Jan Silva is here for his afternoon practice, which isn't going well today. The boy's form is off. In between serves, he comes over for a pep talk from his dad.

"Do the best you can," Silva tells his son.

"It's hard!" Jan says.

"I'm sure it is," says Silva. "But you can do it. Don't think about it, okay?"

"I'm trying to think about it" Jan answers.

"Like James Blake on an approach shot. What would he do?" Silva says.

"Not think about it," says Jan.

"Just rip it," his father says.

"OK, OK, OK" Jan says, and runs back to the court.

The story of how Jan Silva got into tennis is legendary. By the time he was 1, he was hitting foam tennis balls. A video of him playing tennis when he was 3 started circulating, and Silva soon caught the eye of Patrick Mouratoglou, the owner of the academy. Mouratoglou invited the Silvas to come visit the school and then made them an irresistible offer: free training for the child, and room and board for the family. If Silva turns pro one day, he'll owe Mouratoglou a cut of whatever he makes.

Mouratoglou says he's never seen a player so talented at Silva's age. "He's self-confident," Mouratoglou says. "The racquet is a part of his body. He doesn't have a racquet in his hand -- he has just another part of his body."

Silva's parents have been accused of pushing the boy too hard and putting too much pressure on him. But his father says what people don't understand is that Jan adores tennis.

"It's easy to sit back someplace and say those parents are living their lives through their kids," he says. "But when people come here and they meet us, when people actually meet us, they leave saying that, 'You know, this kid is really happy.' The direction this is heading in, there's like no limits to what could happen with this whole situation."

I press about this point a bit more. "But you have to admit, this isn't the most normal childhood," I say.

"What is normal?" Silva replies. "It's different for everyone. Childhood obesity is normal now in America. Now is that OK? Jan, he's doing more athletics than 90 percent of the kids in America. He's learning two different languages. No, it's not normal. It's not normal by any stretch of the imagination but that's what makes it beautiful."

Silva does seem to lead a charmed life. He travels around Europe, and after more than a year-and-a-half in France, he speaks French better than his parents do. All in all, he seems like a happy boy, all smiles on the court. But he's also pretty shy. I asked him to tell me what he likes about tennis:

"Umm... I don't know," he says.

"Do you like playing tennis as much as you do?" I ask.

"Yup," he says.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I ask.

"Maybe a scientist," Silva says.

I tried to talk to Jan more to get a feel for what he's like off the tennis court, but he wouldn't open up. I think the microphone was making him a little nervous. At the end of the interview he asked me why I was still recording.

"I don't know," I said. "Do you get tired of being interviewed?"

"Yeah," Silva answered.

"Do you want it to be done?" I ask him.

"Yeah," he says.

"All right," I say. And I turned off the recorder. It was the end of the afternoon. Silva had finished his tennis lessons and was off to the gym for his evening workout.

  • Music Bridge:
    Hallo Gallo
    Artist: Neu!
    CD: Neu! (Astralwerks)


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