Tennis: Rios revels in his elevated status

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The Independent Online
"OLE, OLE, ole, ole, Chil-ay! Chil-ay!"

The atmosphere was an amalgam of the Davis Cup and the World Cup as half of Santiago appeared to cram into the 14,000-seater Centre Court here to celebrate Marcelo Rios's coronation as the 14th world No 1 in 25 years of ATP computer rankings and the first from Latin America.

Two charter airplanes made the nine and a half hour journey from Chile to Miami to augment the flag-waving Rios fanatics who follow the relatively diminutive dynamo, not to mention the Hispanic citizens of south Florida.

The 22-year-old left-hander did not disappoint them, dominating a duel of attacking groundstrokes in his first match against Andre Agassi to win the final of the Lipton Championships, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4.

Rios interrupted Pete Sampras's run of 102 consecutive weeks at No 1 (218 weeks in total) and joined the elite group of Ilie Nastase, John Newcombe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Jim Courier, Sampras, Agassi and Thomas Muster.

Agassi, ranked as low as No 141 last November, raised himself to No 22 by advancing to the final (victory would have elevated him to No 17). In spite of his disappointment yesterday, the 27-year-old, a three-times winner of the Lipton title, has worked himself into fine fettle for the European clay-court season and Wimbledon's lawns.

He made a spirited revival after losing the opening three games of the first set, saving a break point which would have left Rios serving for the set at 5-1 and levelling at 5-5. This prompted the Americans in the crowd to strike up with "USA! USA!"

Unfortunately, having pumped up the volume, Agassi double-faulted to lose the set on the fourth set point. He managed to save two break points in the second game of the second set, only to be broken for 1-3, which gave Rios the momentum to take a two-set lead after 80 minutes.

This left Agassi with too much ground to make up against a strong, confident and ambitious opponent who was determined to make amends for the way he froze on the big occasion in losing to Petr Korda in the Australian Open final in January.

After Rios broke for 4-3 in the third set, driving a forehand winner down the line, the Chilean prepared for a roar that will reverberate throughout the whole of tennis in Latin America. After luring Agassi into hitting a backhand long on match point after an hour and 56 minutes, Rios revelled in the emotional response.

He was hugged by his father, Jorge, and his girlfriend, Patricia, and took a Chilean flag, from a spectator and waved it to the packed upper decks of the stadium. "I couldn't ask for more," Rios said, "I played a great match to win the tournament and became No 1 in the world."

At 5ft 9in, Rios is a rarity among the giants in the game, a point Agassi noted. "I never thought we would see a player as good as Marcelo after [Michael] Chang," he said. "He brings a new dimension to the game."

The only other player to have been ranked No 1 without winning a Grand Slam title was Ivan Lendl in 1983 (the year before he won the French Open). The last player to overtake Sampras, Thomas Muster, also had a rare distinction. He is yet to win a match at Wimbledon.

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