Tennis: The ace who needs a heart

French Open provides grand test of desire for a player described as 'The Most Hated Man in Tennis'; Andrew Longmore says it is time for Marcelo Rios to prove he cares enough to win in Paris
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The Independent Online
SOUTH AMERICANS have always lent an exotic air to the tennis tour, since the days of Guillermo Vilas, poetry and ponytails. They add colour and a certain sense of mystique to the more transparent qualities of the traditional mix of Americans, Australians and Europeans. Vilas, with his muscular forearms and tree-trunk thighs, stretched fitness beyond the limits of most others on the tour back then. A rendezvous with Guillermo was a route march to exhaustion; many preferred to take the short cut back to the locker-room. Vilas won 46 matches in a row through the 1977- 78 season, including the French and US Opens, a record for the open era.

Marcelo Rios has already dismissed Vilas as just another one of "those guys with the wooden rackets", along with Rod Laver. Chino, his nickname, doesn't care for history, nor for autograph hunters, certainly not for the media and, on more than a few occasions past and present, not much for his profession either. His epitaph is already penned. No estoy ahi - "I don't care". One acute observer of the tour, who watched Boris Becker grow up, says that he has never seen a player look so bored with life. Rios can walk past his mother without a hint of recognition. Another official diplomatically described the Chilean's relationship with the press as "difficult". And she knew John McEnroe. "He's a bit shy, a bit impatient. Mac could be difficult or good as gold. Marcelo will never say, 'Sure, I'll be right with you', if I ask him to do an interview. Hey, he's not that interested in people."

Shy is taken by those who have to ask the questions as a euphemism for rudeness. Sports Illustrated, the American sports weekly, entitled their profile of him: "The Most Hated Man in Tennis." Not even a question mark. Rios's response? "I don't care, the interviewer had written his piece before he spoke to me." Which shows at least an acute understanding of the more devious ways of the press. "Tennis journalists," he says, "they're not real smart people."

The trouble for Rios - and his hard-pressed agents at International Management Group - is that paper reputations stick. Temper can be packaged as character and sold by the million; sourness is just plain unattractive unless, as the French press have suggested in awarding him the Prix Citron for the most uncooperative player at Roland Garros for the past two years, the product is a lemon. For all the attempt to paint Rios as the new James Dean of tennis, the Chilean behaves impeccably on court. He has no genius for tantrum.

For the moment, it is Rios's lot to be described in terms of others: the next McEnroe, the Chilean Agassi. Because he rarely opens up, stories are recycled. Like the one about Rios's washing which an ATP tour supervisor, so dismayed by the player's lack of courtesy, dumped in the hotel swimming pool or the request for Monica Seles to "move her fat butt" in the dinner queue at Wimbledon. They sound like Rios, but no one is quite sure. Winning grand slams is the one way to create identity and Rios has not done that yet. His first appearance in a grand slam final, at the Australian Open this year, brought uncomfortable reminders of his mental frailty. He lost in three sets to Petr Korda and, by his own admission, would rather have been elsewhere. A touch of Goran Ivanisevic there. Rios has been known to "tank" (not try) before.

"He'll have to win a grand slam this year to be No 1 in the players'eyes and in his own eyes," Agassi said, a reflection of his own struggle for recognition during his technicolour dreamcoat period. The extravagant American's first two finals, both at the French Open, ended in defeat, by Andres Gomez, a shrimp farmer from Ecuador who left the centre court of Roland Garros and was barely seen again, and Jim Courier. A revitalised Agassi will be among the favourites for this year's French Open, which starts tomorrow, along with a posse of Spaniards, and Pete Sampras, searching for a full house of grand slam titles. But Rios is the favourite, in the strict sporting sense at least. He would never win a popularity contest, for all his swarthy good looks.

Should the Chilean have trouble getting out of bed one morning, the prospect of a return to No 1 which earned him a parade through the streets of Santiago and an audience with his president the last time will be an added incentive. A bout of tendinitis, the result of extending his racket by an inch, forced him to miss the early part of the clay-court season and ended his stay as No 1 after just three weeks, but victory in the Italian Open last week, albeit by a walkover in the final after an injury to Albert Costa, suggested that his preparations were back on track. The world No 3 conceded just 25 games in five matches on the way to his fourth title of the year and did not forfeit a set.

One of the few voices raised in support of Rios's right to be world No 1 back in March belonged to Tim Henman, occasional dinner companion and part-time doubles partner. "Ranking points don't lie, " he said. "You have to earn every single one of them and Marcelo has done that." Henman, beaten twice by the 22-year-old this season, says Rios has "magic in his hands"; his critics that he has no big shot and too small a heart to prosper over a gruelling fortnight on the clay of Roland Garros. Yet, at 5ft 9in, he is the smallest of the 14 No 1s dating back to Ilie Nastase in 1973 and a throwback to an older generation of craftsmen.

"He has something that doesn't come around that often," Larry Stefanki, his coach, says. "He has a general awareness of the court and how to use it. He can create soft angles off hard balls and velocity off slow balls." Magic hands, in other words. And Stefanki coached McEnroe in his latter years. Ion Tiriac, the former Romanian Davis Cup player and Becker's original mentor, talks of the way Rios "manipulates" the ball, a lost art in the eyes of the purists. But Stefanki has not always been so complimentary. "Marcelo," he once said "is always talking about 'feeling the ball'. Well, I've got news for him, heart and guts come into it too and, right now, he is the only guy in the top 10 who has yet to win a match on heart and guts."

On his ability to do so could depend his chances of a first grand slam title over the next two weeks and of survival on the grass at Wimbledon in high summer where, to the surprise of most last year, he reached the fourth round before losing to Boris Becker. If he arrives at the gates of the All England Club as French Open champion and world No 1, all eyes will be upon him, which will not lighten his humour. Tabloid condemnation will surely follow. One further story, the one about Rios chatting with a wheelchair-bound Chilean boy during a tournament in Memphis. Rios signed the boy's shirt and the boy began to cry. "Marcelo is just starting to grasp how much influence he has," Stefanki adds. The Chilly One might be starting to defrost.