Jan Silva was almost literally born on a tennis court. That’s where his mother, Mari Maattanen-Silva, was when she went into labor before his birth.
Now, nearly six years later, he’s still on the court, playing tennis the way a 5-year-old Tiger Woods once played golf — better than most adults.
Playing with an adult racket that is almost as tall as he is, Jan rakes topspin forehands, hits overhead smashes and artful volleys, flips returns between his legs and rips backhand shots with a one-handed grip that even some pros don’t employ.
“I think there’s a pretty good chance of him going all the way,” his father, Scott Silva, told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on a court set up outside the TODAY studios.
To pursue that chance, the Silvas — Jan has an older brother, Kadyn, 11, and a sister, Jasmin, 3 — the family last year sold their house and car in Sacramento and moved permanently to France, where Jan is attending the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy.
Jan’s talent even at this age is so enormous that academy founder Patrick Mouratoglou, a former top player in France, is paying all the family’s expenses — and providing them with a three-bedroom villa and a car — just to be in on Jan’s future. The academy has also taken in Kadyn. It is a deal reportedly worth $140,000 a year.
Scott Silva, a former college basketball player at Southern Oregon University, was working in Sacramento as a social worker. His wife, a former top pro in her native Finland, was an instructor at a local tennis club.
Scott told Vieira it made total sense to sell what they had here and move to France.
“We were living at a tennis club in Sacramento,” he said. “He was in the same environment anyway. The only difference is the kids learn to speak French.”
Inspired by Agassi
Jan (pronounced Yohn) was just 7 months old when the Silvas took him to see a Sacramento Capitals World Team Tennis match at which Mari was an alternate player.
He was captivated by Andre Agassi, who was at the time still one of the top players in the world, and who signed Jan’s shirt. As soon as he could stand, Jan was hitting balls against the sliding glass doors in the family’s home every day for hours at a time.
At the age of 4, he played in his first tournament. He didn’t win any matches, but he did take games against kids twice his age.
The Silvas were already investing in tennis lessons for Kadyn, who is also exceptionally talented. When daughter Jasmin arrived, the couple found it increasingly difficult to pay for the lessons and travel both boys needed.
They visited Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where Agassi and many other top pros developed their games, and consulted with another top teacher, Vic Braden, who helps Jan out as a mental coach on a consulting basis.
The Bollettieri academy, where instruction costs about $50,000 annually, was reluctant to give a scholarship to a 5-year-old. And paying for instruction and travel for both Kadyn and Jan had stretched the family’s finances to the limit.
That’s when Mouratoglou came in and the Silvas decided to put all their eggs in the basket of Jan’s potential.
The downside to early talent
There are dangers inherent in being a child prodigy. Some kids lose interest or don’t get better as they get older. Others buckle under the enormous pressure that begins to build around them as they are ballyhooed as the next great player.
Tracy Austin, the NBC tennis analyst, was anointed a prodigy at the age of 4 and grew up to deliver on her potential, winning two U.S. Open singles titles. She watched a video with NBC’s Michael Okwu of Jan playing and was impressed.
“Obviously, his forehand is beautiful. But it’s the backhand that’s phenomenal,” she said, astonished that a 5-year-old could hit one-handed backhands with an adult-sized racket. Austin herself always hit her backhands with the two-handed grip popularized by Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors.
The Silvas feel that Jan is well grounded and will grow up to win major championships. They are not, they say, the sort of tennis parents who force their children to practice, setting them up for future burnout.
Their son’s enthusiasm for the game appears to be as prodigious as his talent. Practice is fun for him, not work.
Vieira told Jan that she’d heard that on the rare occasions when Jan doesn’t want to practice, he responds to ice-cream bribes from his dad, but Jan said that’s not true.
“My dad promised yesterday to give me ice cream, and he didn’t,” he said, to his dad’s embarrassment and everyone else’s laughter.
Don’t worry, Vieira told him. “You’ll get ice cream today after this.”