Tennis: Mighty mouth Rios grows in stature

John Roberts, in Key Biscayne, Florida, on Latin America's brattish new tennis No 1
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MARCELO RIOS is accustomed to being given a Chile reception and a chilly reception, both of which he brings upon himself. Installed yesterday as the first world No 1 from Latin America after defeating Andre Agassi in straight sets in Sunday's final of the Lipton Championships here, he is reckoned to have the best hands and worst mouth since John McEnroe.

Adulated in his homeland since first showing signs of greatness with a tennis racket, the 22-year-old left-hander from Santiago has been known to be rude to autograph hunters and sporting icons alike. No respecter of reputations, nor apparently much else, he has spoken dismissively of Rod Laver and Guillermo Vilas, saying he does not know anything about "those guys with wood rackets", and reportedly told Monica Seles to "move your fat butt" while queuing for lunch at Wimbledon.

Even if his initial reign as the top man in the game lasts no longer than a fortnight (Pete Sampras can return to No 1 if he reaches the semi- finals of his next tournament, in Hong Kong), Rios will go into the European clay-court season on a hat-trick for the "Prix Citron", awarded by journalists covering the French Open for non- cooperation.

While not exactly advancing the cause of humanity, the Lemon Drop Kid's behaviour is not necessarily bad for tennis, bearing in mind the media's McEnroe syndrome - Ban McEnroe! (but bring him back next week so we can ban him again). Like McEnroe, Rios would be the one being told to move his butt were it not for the excellence of his tennis, and he knows it.

At the outset of the Lipton Championships, Sports Illustrated, whose noted features on the sport have included "Lendl - The Champion Nobody Wants" and "Is Tennis Dying?", described Rios as the "Most Hated Man in Tennis". The article did not provoke a protest petition from the rest of the media, and Rios himself dismissed it with a shake of his ponytail as par for the course. "I think this guy that wrote the article knew what he was going to write before the interview," he said. "So that is fine. I don't care what he wrote."

It must be emphasised that most of the criticism regarding Rios's behaviour concerns his dealings with people off the court. He does not have a history of tantrums during matches.

His aggressive baseline game, reminiscent of Agassi at his best, prompted the New York Times to describe Rios as the "Chilean Agassi". Asked what it was like to play against his clone, the 27-year-old from Las Vegas replied: "I'm not sure if you just insulted me or gave me a compliment. I don't have long hair any more, man."

Agassi, whose popularity has ridden umpteen form swings over the years, has not been the most endearing of players in his dealings with tennis officials, on the court or off. Obscenities, when not muffled by a towel, have punctuated many of his matches, including those which brought him an Olympic Games gold medal in Atlanta. He once publicly referred to the former president of the International Federation, Philippe Chatrier, and his colleagues as "bozos" following objections to his garish outfits.

For many tennis followers, Agassi's shortcoming have been overlooked because of his charisma and mischievous charm. Rios seems sincere when he says he does not care what people think about him.

Lindsay Davenport, the tall American who is No 2 behind Martina Hingis in the women's game, ventured the view that being No 1 without having won a Grand Slam title was not such a big deal. Rios barely used a backswing in returning the shot. "Winning a Grand Slam is easy for girls," he said. "They should be No 1 really easy."

Agassi, while acknowledging that Rios has risen on merit, declared that: "He'll have to win a Slam this year to be No 1 in the players' eyes and to be No 1 in his own eyes."

Rios pointed out that the tour is played "over a lot of tournaments, not only Grand Slams" and emphasised that he had been "playing all year, trying to improve my ranking".

Tim Henman, the only player to take a set off Rios last week, sides with the Chilean. "Ranking points don't lie," the British No 2 said. "You've got to earn every single one of them. Rios has accumulated the most in the last 12 months. His results speak for themselves. I definitely think he deserves it."

It is not that Rios is inclined to brag about his status. "Maybe in this moment I am playing better than anyone, but I don't think the other players have no chance to beat me," he said.

"I don't think of myself [as being] on another level. I don't think like that. I always say that even if you're No 1, you're not really there. You can lose. Everybody has a chance to beat me."

Rios's natural talent has matured under the guidance of Larry Stefanki, who regards success in the Grand Slams as a priority ("when it's all over, that's what they remember"). Stefanki advised McEnroe during the turbulent one's later years on the regular circuit. "Johnny was, quote unquote, difficult. People said if I could last with McEnroe, I could handle Marcelo," Stefanki told the Miami Herald. "We've had our moments, but Marcelo is getting better. He's just turning into a man.

"He's not going to be gregarious in the locker-room or act like Bill Clinton. He's very cut and dried. That's why we're still together. Coming from South America and getting thrown into the worldwide spectrum can be intimidating."

When first asked to take a look at the 5ft 9in Rios by the player's agent, Stefanki's immediate reaction was, "this kid is so stinking small." He soon came to see larger qualities when Rios took on the game's big servers. "He loves taking on that challenge," he said. "He's driven inside. People don't see it. There are a lot of layers, and underneath, it burns."

And he does make a point of smiling in public at least once a month.