Golf: Relentless Rios heads ever upward

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MARCELO RIOS, the brilliant Chilean whose brief reign as the world No. 1 was curtailed by an elbow injury, continued his impressive comeback at the Foro Italico yesterday, dismantling Gustavo Kuerten, last year's surprise French Open champion, 6-0 7-5.

The result gives Rios an opportunity today to make amends for his disappointment at losing to Alex Corretja in last year's Italian Open final when he plays Albert Costa, another member of the seemingly endless list of Spanish clay court specialists. They may occasionally fall short of being an armada, but they undoubtedly qualify as a flotilla, Costa yesterday defeating his compatriot Alberto Berasategui 6-3 4-6 6-3.

Although Costa has won his last 11 matches, he will be hard pressed to match Rios over the best of five sets this afternoon. "I feel I'm playing like No. 1, and I want to be No. 1," Rios said after turning yesterday's keenly anticipated meeting between the French Open champion and the heir apparent into something of an anti-climax.

The Brazilian was dazzled by his left-handed opponent in the opening set, which was completed in 22 minutes. Although Kuerten gave a respectable account of himself in the second, he acknowledged: "There is no obvious weakness in Rios's game. You just have to play so well against him all the time. He's the best player so far this year. He has the confidence to win any tournament."

Rios has lost only four matches this year, the most dismal against the Czech Petr Korda in the final of the Australian Open in January. On that occasion he seemed unable to cope with the atmosphere of a major final, but since then his form has blossomed. Yesterday's victory was his 30th of the year on the ATP Tour, putting him one ahead of Andre Agassi as the tour leader. Today will be the 18th final of his career, the fifth in 1998.

Costa lost his first set in two tournaments yesterday, although his opponent in the Hamburg final, Corretja, retired from physical exhaustion last Sunday with his compatriot leading, 6-2 6-0 1-0.

"I want to be a more professional player and concentrate much more on the court than I used to do in the past," the 22-year-old from Barcelona said after his straight sets win against Michael Chang in the quarter- finals. The previous day, Chang had out-smarted - and out-served - his fellow American Pete Sampras, the world No. 1, in straight sets.

There was not the slightest doubt that Costa's mind was on business in the opening set yesterday. Berasategui, who was defeated by Rios in the semi-finals last year, was forced on to the back foot from the start, losing serve in the opening game and having to save break points in the third and fifth games before being broken a second time after 37 minutes.

Early in the second set, however, Costa allowed his concentration to be broken by disputing a line call with the linesman and umpire. Although he managed to save four break points in the third game, he was unable to deny Berasategui his sixth break point, hitting a backhand wide for 2-3.

Berasategui saved a break point in the next game, holding for 4-2 by crafting an exquisite drop shot and then luring his opponent into netting a backhand. Fortunately for Costa, Berasategui failed to capitalise on a promising start to the final set, mistiming his returns after creating three break points in the opening game. Costa broke for 3-1, and although Berasategui rallied from 4-1 to break back for 4-3, he double-faulted to 0-40 in the next game, Costa coaxing a winning drop volley on the third break point.

Asked about the Spanish style of baseline play, Costa said: "We learn to play like this, and we have to play like we know. The best way to play on clay is our way, I think." When it was pointed out that Rios was also "born on clay" but performs equally well on hard courts, Costa replied: "Rios plays very well. He can play well on hard courts, indoors and on grass. He is a little bit different than the typical clay court players." We shall have an opportunity to judge how different today.