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Child labor . . . or Laver?

The parents and coach of 6-year-old tennis prodigy Jan Silva took heat for moving him to France to train. But there's no questioning his talent.

December 12, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

THIVERVAL-GRIGNON, France -- The French visionary finds most human beings almost pitifully oblivious. He sees them ambling through the world while barely noticing the world.

So if you wish to denounce him for accepting a Sacramento tennis phenom with the shocking age of 4 into his tennis academy west of Paris in September 2006, it won't perturb his pulse.

"I know everything can happen in life," Patrick Mouratoglou said. "Most people have very closed minds. Has to be like this or like that. So things can come into their view, and they don't even see it."

Wavy-haired, 37, suave without trying, Mouratoglou doesn't hanker to convince. He just knows his phone rang in March 2006, and that on the line was Marcos Baghdatis, the 2006 Australian Open finalist, and an erstwhile Mouratoglou pupil. Baghdatis spoke as if having just seen an extraterrestrial.

"I was on the practice courts at Indian Wells," Baghdatis began to Mouratoglou, "and while I was practicing, I saw someone who when I saw what he was doing was the first time I ever see something like this."

Baghdatis had noticed a novelty invitee of the Pacific Life Open, Jan Silva, who'd turned up hitting tennis balls on the news in Sacramento way back at age 3. Mouratoglou, trusting of Baghdatis, reacted as would most any tennis-academy founder with zero concern that others think him eccentric: He bought the tyke and his family airplane tickets to France.

The parents, "Jani" the boy tennis player, his older brother and younger sister flew into Paris in June 2006. They rode westward from Paris, out to a bucolic French village that looks precisely as you'd think a bucolic French village might look, to a tennis academy in front of a cornfield with indoor-court bubbles that look like big white ticks.

Scott Silva, a welfare officer for Sacramento County, and Mari Maattanen-Silva, a tennis instructor at Gold River Racquet Club, had come upon the brainchild of Mouratoglou, who started his academy in the Paris suburbs in 1996.

In his childhood, Mouratoglou had reached 15 as a rare tennis animal who served and volleyed and harbored visions of a far-flung Patrick Rafter, until his magnate father made him shoo the daydreams and veer toward business school.

He slogged and slept through two years of that, worked at his father's renewable-energies colossus, left his racket untroubled for seven years, but then realized he could still summon peace just by looking at a tennis court.

With his father's help, he envisioned the biggest tennis academy in Europe and got going, seeing himself as "more American than French in the way I see my job and life," and believing players can become champions by "thinking the way Americans think."

Now in June 2006, with his academy and his management business and his locally popular health club on the premises, he found himself hitting balls for about 90 minutes with this, this, this . . . American 4-year-old who would turn 5 that November.

"I played a match from the baseline with a 4-year-old, can you imagine this?" Mouratoglou said. "With a one-handed backhand, at 4. Being able to play a one-handed backhand from the baseline at 4 years old? Good luck to all the others."

He concluded that even though it was chancy business given the prodigy's age, he'd merely move the entire Silva family to Thiverval-Grignon if they wished, pay for its expenses, hire Mari as an instructor, have them reside in one of the 19 cabins up on the ridge above the courts, see that they had a car, and enroll their children in the French school down the road.

"It's impossible for me not to help him," Mouratoglou said. "Impossible. It would be a scandal. He's 4, and you give him a violin and it's just you feel this violin is part of his body. What do you do?"

The Finnish mother and tennis instructor always preferred the grind of the tennis to the attention of the tennis when roosted atop her own country's rankings and playing for the University of the Pacific. She's mystified to have a son who's already all chirpy appearing on "Today" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and for TV camera crews from as far away as Brazil.

So if you wish to criticize Mari because her family sold its house and furniture and two vehicles because of her son's talent, she knows it's out there and she stoically steers clear. "Her whole approach to the whole thing is Scandinavian," her husband said. "They're just about the work. Let's just do the work."

Her water broke while teaching tennis on Nov. 16, 2001, but she held off for 20 more minutes and finished the lesson before fleeing to the hospital. She gave birth the next morning to Jan, her first child and her husband's second, and the tot turned up immediately at courtside in tennis-ball baskets and such, the tennis village helping raise him.

"He started hitting balls before he could walk," Mari said, but only in 2003 did she start to notice she'd birthed the creature from Planet Racket.

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