Tennis: Rios cashes in as Costa counts cost

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THE Italian Open lived up to its reputation for the unusual yesterday. The men's singles finalists, Marcelo Rios, of Chile, and Spain's Albert Costa, were paraded on Centre Court with their national flags. Anthems were played by the carabinieri band. And only then were the 10,000 spectators informed that the match was off.

A sprained wrist had done for Costa, the injury caused by a tumble while winning the first point of the concluding game of Saturday's semi-final against his compatriot, Alberto Berasategui. Last Sunday, Costa won the German Open in Hamburg when another countryman, Alex Corretja, retired due to physical exhaustion. Costa was leading, 6-2, 6-0, 1-0.

Had Costa struck a ball in the final yesterday, Rios would have also gained 48 bonus points for winning the match along with the trophy and $350,000 (pounds 230,000), although, win or lose, his world ranking would not have moved from No 3. The only people who saw the Spaniard in action yesterday were tournament officials, medical staff, journalists and the bandsmen. A fitness test about an hour before the match was painful to watch, the bandaged wrist unable to deal effectively with even the most gentle shots. Any notion of countering Rios's penetrating grounstrokes, even for five minutes, was swiftly abandoned.

The crowd, all but a small but vocal group of Chileans, were not impressed when the charming Lea Pericoli took the microphone and told them of Costa's indisposition, their whistles and jeers subsiding when it was added that before the doubles final Rios would play an exhibition match against Davide Sanguinetti, an Italian wild card who had reached the third round. (They entertained for 66 minutes, Rios winning, 7-5, 6-3).

Costa made his apologies and was given morale support by Rios, who has recovered from a recent elbow injury to become a favourite for the French Open, which starts next Monday. "Bad luck for him, but that's the way it goes," the Chilean said. Costa, his participation at the French in doubt, was not feeling like the best thing since sliced bread, or "life spread" as Sampras was misquoted in translation after losing to Chang on Thursday.

By now the spectators had shrugged off their disappointment as just another of those days at the Foro Italico. It was here, years ago, that a double- fault on match point in a contest involving Tony Pickard was not called. The linesman, it transpired, was leaning over the wall buying an ice cream from a passing vendor. "Well," the umpire told the players, "it is very hot.''

It was here also that the crowd threw coins at Bjorn Borg, who carefully picked them up, put them in his pocket, and said thank you very much but he would not bother coming back again. Nor did he.

And only last week a spectator threw condoms on the court during the 17-year-old Martina Hingis's semi-final against Mirjani Lucic, urging the world No 1 to save her life.