William Silva was one of more than 350 participants at the US Open Ballperson Tryouts
© USTA/Nicholas Walz
By McCarton Ackerman, USOpen.org
Among the more than 350 people who took part in this year’s US Open Ballperson Tryouts, one particular individual stood out for his determination and inspiring story.
William Silva, 35, from Laguna Vista, Texas, took part in the same sprinting and throwing drills as the other participants, but he did so with the help of a prosthetic leg. Nearly a decade after the off-duty accident that changed his life forever, the military veteran arrived at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and lived out a childhood dream.
“When I was a kid, my dream was to go to the US Open and watch Michael Chang and Pete Sampras play,” he said. “To be here and running around on these courts is surreal.”
An active tennis player growing up, Silva played for his high school team, competed in local and regional tournaments and even occasionally trained at the John Newcombe Tennis Academy in New Braunfels, Texas. He likely could have played at the college level but instead signed up for the Marine Corps on the first day of his senior year in high school, ultimately putting tennis on the backburner.
Silva spent four years on tour as a firefighter in the Marine Corps, from 1997 to 2001, before going on to work in fire departments in Fort Worth, Texas. But on Feb. 22, 2003, he was hit by a truck while riding his motorcycle. After flipping in the air, half of his left foot was severed upon landing and he also ruptured an artery.
“My leg was sticking out at a 90 degree angle, but I didn’t feel that much pain,” he recalled. “I just remember being mad that my motorcycle was underneath his truck.”
After making the decision to amputate, doctors cut off his left leg below the knee. But showing off his characteristic fighting spirit, Silva was using a walker after less than three weeks. Four years later, he finished a 10K race.
In the years that followed, he transitioned out of firefighting and eventually became a fire inspector. Silva also picked up a wide range of sports including archery, kayaking and shooting, but tennis remained off the radar. “To be honest, tennis was the last thing on my mind,” he said. “I needed to learn how to walk and run, drive a car and deal with work. I wanted to get back into the community rather than just take from it.”
Last year he was watching a tennis match on television with his girlfriend. She prodded him to get back in the game and bought him a racquet for his birthday. Shortly afterward, he hit the courts in preparation for the Third Annual National Tennis Camp for Wounded Warriors, held last month in San Diego.
Although he had been out of the game for over a decade, it was clear that his love for the game had never been lost.
“It was easy to see how much he was enjoying it – he smiled every time he hit the ball,” said Steve Kappes, former U.S. Navy captain and president of the San Diego District Tennis Association. “His agility around the court and his sense of timing were remarkable, and that helped the other campers see the possibilities in themselves. His easygoing personality made the other campers feel comfortable talking about tennis, their military experiences and their post-service challenges, which is a very important aspect of the camp.”
Although the goal of the camp for was simply to get back on the tennis court, Silva has kept in touch with several people from the camp and gotten far more from the experience than he first expected. “I could see that through tennis, some people were able to overcome other injuries or other aspects of their life,” he said. “Everyone that I’ve kept in touch with from the camp has pictures of themselves on Facebook playing tennis or doing something active that they didn’t do before.”
Since the camp, Silva has continued to play with neighbors and co-workers. He’s even planning on getting an NTRP rating and joining a USTA League, although acknowledged that “I’m a lot slower now” than in his junior days.
But perhaps most importantly, he’s returned to the sport that he loved.
“The Wounded Warriors camp brought me back to tennis,” he said. “It’s given me an activity to stay positive and focused. I want to show people that even when these kinds of things happen to you, you can still be active and live life.”