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.

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