Rios raising the Latin standard

The French Open starts on Monday, and John Roberts spies a Chilean challenge

The coach patrolled the practice court, a thought for the day printed on his T-shirt - "Know your limits and ignore them" - and a hitting partner endeavoured to recover a ball which had lodged high in the bushes. Meanwhile the player they were working with continued to make shots with a look of disdain.

Marcelo Rios was preparing for a match against Thomas Muster, the emperor of clay courts, and it did not go nearly so well as the practice session; not that Rios was the first to experience that particular frustration during the past couple of years.

The fiercely competitive Muster is the man to beat at the French Open, which starts on Monday, although a sprained ankle may render him vulnerable. The defending champion's obvious rivals include the Americans Pete Sampras (provided a dodgy back holds up) and Andre Agassi, both of whom need the title to complete a set of the four Grand Slams, and Michael Chang, last year's finalist.

Among the young contenders, the Spaniards Alberto Costa and Carlos Moya boast victories over Muster, but none is as exotic as the Chilean Rios, a 20-year-old left-hander of innate talent. Given continued fitness and improved consistency, his time may be not too far away.

"He is a player who has a gifted hand and good vision," was Boris Becker's endorsement after losing to the lithe, 5ft 8in Rios in straight sets in the third round of the Monte Carlo Open last month. Becker added: "He's a very good counter-puncher. He plays with the power of the other guy, takes the ball early, and has a very good feel for the court. On a good day, he can be excellent. The surface doesn't matter. He has a good eye for everything."

Those qualities have enabled Rios to become the latest player to rise to the top 10, and the former world junior champion has the potential to be the most successful South American since Andres Gomez, of Ecuador, who in 1990 defeated Agassi to win the French title; Rios may even prove to be the best since the great Argentinian, Guillermo Vilas.

Rios, whose interest in tennis was aroused when his parents bought a house next to the courts of a country club, is already the sporting hero of Chile, the talk of his home city, Santiago, and famed throughout that long snake of land situated between the Pacific and the Andes.

Ivan Zamorano, the Real Madrid striker, occasionally rates a mention but has yet to be treated to the enthusiastic welcomes and noisy celebrations which followed Rios's ATP Tour titles last year in Bologna, Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. When he plays in Santiago, people without tickets have been known to chant outside the gates, pleading to be allowed in.

Spectators elsewhere began paying attention to the youngster with the long ponytail and back-to-front cap after he pushed Sampras to two tie- breaks before losing to the world No 1 in straight sets in the second round of the 1994 French Open.

Within the game, however, Rios has the reputation of being a player with attitude: "arrogant" is the adjective used most to describe his personality. An apparent off-handedness has upset a number of people, and his relationship with the Chilean Tennis Federation is at best ambivalent.

Rather than play in the Olympic Games in July, he has decided to defend the points he won in Amsterdam last year. "I would like to play for my country," he said, "but I think there are certain times that you can't do it, and this is one of the times."

Rios has also crossed Wimbledon off his schedule, having lost in four sets in the opening round on his first visit last year when drawn against Mark Knowles, a qualifier from the Bahamas. "I didn't have a good time on grass," he explained - shades of the young Agassi? - but then expressed his intention to return next year "and maybe all the years".

That seems fair enough; certainly more acceptable than the iconoclastic tone Rios tends to adopt when asked about eminent Chilean players of the past, principally Luis Ayala, who won the Italian title in 1959 and was a finalist at the French in 1958 and 1960: "They say when Ayala played there was no ranking, but I have no idea about Ayala." There was no ATP computer, but acknowledged judges of the period rated Ayala No 5 in 1958.

When playing in Monte Carlo last year, Rios was warned after making a racist comment to a Brazilan umpire. And although most of his fellow professionals would echo Becker's praise of his talent, they would not necessarily do so warmly.

Once based at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida and later coached by Larry Stefanki, who assisted John McEnroe towards the end of the turbulent one's career, Rios has worked with Sweden's Peter Lundgren since February.

"He was looking for a player who had just quit the tour," said the 31- year-old Lundgren, a doubles finalist with Britain's Jeremy Bates at the 1988 Australian Open. "I don't have to say much on his strokes, it's more to keep him happy and socialise with him and keep him from getting bored."

Perhaps it is easier to ignore your limits if you have a short attention span.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?