Tennis: Eccentric Rios out to cage Sampras

The ATP Tour Championship starts tomorrow in Hanover and decides who ends the year as No 1. By John Roberts
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The Independent Online
ON HIS way to victory against Andre Agassi in last month's Grand Slam Cup final in Munich, Marcelo Rios gave his detractors enormous pleasure by falling on his backside. In a twinkling, Rios turned embarrassment into triumph by hitting a winning smash from a sitting position before toppling over. You can't keep a good man down, although there are those who would like to try.

Rios heralded his debut at the ATP Tour Championship in Hanover, which starts tomorrow, by generating the heaviest top-spin of the year. The Chilean world No 2 told Stern, the German weekly, that tennis players had the survival instincts of "caged wild animals", and were transformed into "bloodless creatures" by the ATP Tour's "punishment machine".

Tim Henman, Britain's representative in this week's elite eight-man field, and also a member of the ATP Tour Player Council, was unimpressed by Rios's rhetoric. "I don't think you should pay a great deal of attention to his remarks," Henman said. "He's entitled to his opinion, but, after collecting $3.2m this year, I don't think he should be too ungrateful."

Emotive tennis players may be an endangered species, but there was no cause for World Wildlife to be alerted to the $3.5m ATP Tour finale. Officials beamed the moment Rios arrived. The brilliant left-hander is essential to the drama, being the only player who can challenge Pete Sampras for the season-ending No 1 ranking, which the American is obsessed with keeping for a record sixth year in a row.

It is not a subject Sampras and Rios have discussed in the locker-room. "You don't sit down next to Marcelo and say, `What do you think about this whole thing?' Sampras said. "He'll look at me like he always looks at me. He doesn't say anything. It must be the language barrier."

Sampras did not mean to imply that he makes a habit of talking top dog with his other rivals. "We all know what's going on," he said. "You can't get away from it. It's something that doesn't really need to be talked about amongst the guys."

In any case, Sampras and Rios have only played each other once. That was in 1994 in the second round of the French Open. Sampras, the top seed, was the winner, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4. Rios performed well enough to suggest he would be wagging his ponytail in other great arenas. Sampras advanced to the quarter-finals, where his perennial clay-court quest was denied by his compatriot, Jim Courier.

"That was one of my first tournaments," Rios said. "I would love to play him again." Sampras, acknowledging that it was "pretty rare" not to encounter one of the leading players more than once, said, "We have come close to playing, but we haven't, because of the way the draw has worked out, or whatever. And we're one and two in the world. You're only to play in the finals, so it's not easy to get there."

The runner-up to Petr Korda at the Australian Open in January this year, Rios became the first South American to rank No 1 since the ATP rankings started in 1973 after defeating Agassi to win the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne, Florida, at the end of March. He has since spent a total of six weeks at No 1, various aches and strains preventing him from supplanting Sampras again at the gates to Hanover.

There is not much trace of the caged animal in Rios's tone when he responds to questions about his ambitions. "Anybody that does something in sports, or something, wants to do his best, and be the best," he says. "I think if I finish No 1 this year, I'm going to feel really proud of myself. It's like you're getting to the top of the hill. But it's not something that makes me lose sleep, like I'm thinking about it every day, being No 1. You can't worry every day, you would go crazy."

Due to mark his 23rd birthday at Christmas, he does not see his career stretching too far ahead. "Let's just say that I would not like to be playing tennis in my late twenties. I would hate to be playing and travelling for 10 more years. I get sick of travelling and playing all the year, so I say I'll retire in a couple of years. I don't know if I'm going to retire, or play less and do something else. I would love to do something else."

Such as? "I would like to live in my country, stay there, and not have to travel every week, and do things like a normal guy." Normal guys seldom become multi-millionaires (Rios has won $6m in official prize-money alone). Rios is the biggest name in sport in Chile, idolised by a fanatical following.

Rios's standing in Chile is such that at the recent Paris Open my colleague Ronald Atkin, from the Independent on Sunday, ventured to ask him what he thought about the arrest of General Pinochet in London. "This is a tennis conference, man," Rios said.

He was only marginally more forthcoming when your correspondent broached the subject of a new coach following his split from the American Larry Stefanki.

"I have a name already," Rios said. "I have a coach, but I am not going to say anything."

So he does not have a travelling coach at the moment?

"You want to know the name really badly."

It was more a case of wondering if he was there looking after himself, I said. "I'm by myself here. Me and me, that's it."

Rios travelled to Hanover with Manuel Astorga, who helps supervise his physical training. They practised together in the Expo 2,000 Tennis Dome on Saturday, since when there have been no shortage of hitting partners to help hone Rios's searing groundstrokes. Among them is Britain's Greg Rusedski, the big-serving left-hander who narrowly failed to qualify for a second crack at the title and is there as the substitute.

The draw for the two groups of four players for the round-robin phase is due to be made this evening. Sampras will be placed in Group One, Rios in Group Two. The six other competitors will be drawn in pairs according to rankings - Agassi and Carlos Moya, Alex Corretja and Karol Kucera, Henman and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

It will be interesting to see if Rios and Sampras advance to face each other for the second time in four years. Much depends on fitness, and Rios's level of determination.

Latest reports put his scowl count on the low side, although there was more than a hint of a frown when Rios arrived last Friday and discovered that his luggage had gone astray en route from Santiago.