Editor’s Note: ATPTour.com is re-emerging features to bring fans closer to their favorite players during the current tournament suspension. This story was originally published on March 30, 2018.
Pete Sampras had a slight lead in the FedEx ATP rankings, so that, when the best players in the world hit American soil in March 1998, more than 10 players with a decent run under the California and Florida sun, in theory, they could have gone up to No. 1. Marcelo Rios, the exquisitely talented Chilean, whose popularity in his homeland was second only to footballer Marcelo Salas, was one of these players at number 7 on the professional tennis ladder. Rios, with 2777 points, gained 939 points behind world number 1 Pete Sampras, who had been the sport leader for most of the past five years.
Within 20 extraordinary days, as many years ago, the ponytailed Rios exploited not only his natural talent, but also a resolute mentality so far untapped to play some of the best tennis of his career and capture the Indian wells- Miami double title. A feat achieved, at that point, only by a trio of Americans: Jim Courier (1991), Michael Chang (1992) and Sampras (1994). Andre Agassi (2001), Roger Federer (2005-06, ’17) and Novak Djokovic (2011, 2014-16) have since completed the “Sunshine Double”.
Thus, Rios, who had been the n. 1 junior in the world as a seventeen year old rose to the top of the professional game on March 30, 1998. “One of my goals was to be number 1 in the juniors,” Rios told ATPTour.com. “I think it was a big step from junior to professional, but in my first year I already entered the Top 100 and at 22 I became number 1. Everything was really fast.” At 5’9 “, Rios was the first Latin American and also the shortest of the 14 players (in 1998) to lead men’s professional tennis since 1973.
“Sampras has been number 1 for a long time, most of the past five years, so it has been a great success to win two” Super 9 ” [now ATP Masters 1000s] in a row beating great players. Beating Agassi in Miami, in his country, was obviously one of my best matches that I will always remember. “
Speaking to ATPTour.com, former world number one Stefan Edberg admitted: “I actually practiced with him several times. I remember that it surprised me a lot in the way it hit the ball. He was very fast and very talented. He had a great streak when he played fantastic tennis, and was very gifted to watch. “
Another former No. 1 in the world, Carlos Moya, reminded ATPTour.com: “He was a different player, you have seen him from the first moment you saw him on the field. He was probably the most talented player I have ever seen. You could enjoy watching it a lot. He was fantastic for tennis, he had a different style of play and he was very talented. “
Fleet of feet, hitting first and imposing his base game, the most naturally gifted sport competitor since John McEnroe first won the 1998 BNP Paribas Open title on March 15 after beating Greg Rusedski, who had broken a record 149 miles per hour in the semi-finals, 6-3, 6-7 (15), 7-6 (4), 6-4 in two hours and 46 minutes. Rios’ variance of topspin, slice and big disguise proved too complete for Rusedski to challenge. Opponents have often attempted to tie the Chilean off balance, with a variety of angles and speeds. Rios also beat Petr Korda, the player who lost in the January Australian Open final in the Indian Wells quarterfinals.
Losing only one set for the whole week – the second set of the final, which, historically, was the longest draw of 1998 – Rios, 22, went up four places to No. 3 in the FedEx ATP ranking with 3,235 points. After finishing 1997 at no. 10, Rios now sat behind Korda (3,432) and Sampras (3,761). Incredibly, the loss of Sampras’ third round against Thomas Muster in Indian Wells meant that if the Americans were to lose before the Miami quarterfinals, then Korda, Rios, Patrick Rafter or Rusedski, up to No. 5, would rise to the first. place.
Days later at Miami’s Crandon Park, where humidity so often does its part in field performance, left-handed Rios made his way ahead of Hendrik Dreekmann in the first round, just like he did at Indian Wells, then Tommy Haas, Goran Ivanisevic, Thomas Enqvist and Tim Henman, reducing the error count and going for positioning on power. Knowing that Sampras had lost to South African Wayne Ferreira 0-6, 7-6 (8), 6-3 in the Miami third round, the third seed Rios knew what was on the line. “The way he hit the ball and the way he saw the corners of the pitch was like no one else could do it,” Enqvist told ATPTour.com.
In the sun-kissed final of March 29, the third seed competed without nerves against the three-time ex-champion Agassi, who had gone from n. 141 at no. 22 in just eight events and led the Tour with a 24-3 start on the season. The path to the glory of Rios, including the 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Agassi in an hour and 57 minutes, which brought Sampras to no. 1 after 102 consecutive weeks, kicked off grueling celebrations on the streets of Chile, a nation that had watched every game live on television.
“Being the best player in the world for Chile is something that is not normal,” said Rios at the moment. “I feel really proud.” To celebrate, then manager Jeff Schwartz and coach Larry Stefanki threw Rios into a swimming pool and, days later in Santiago, there was a reception that brought Rios to Chilean President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000 ) on the Palazzo La Moneda. “We don’t have many athletes in Chile, so being number 1 in tennis was pretty big,” Rios told ATPTour.com 22 years later. “It wasn’t a great sport at the time.”
Any hope that Rios had of holding on to no. 1 was soon overwhelmed by an elbow injury, which kept him out of the circuit for four weeks. He gave up first place in Sampras on April 26, 1998. Although he returned to win the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in May and spent another two weeks on the top since August 10, injuries soon increased. In April 2004, six years after winning the 1998 Indian Wells and Miami titles to become number 1 in the FedEx ATP leaderboard, Rios played his last professional game. A back problem had reduced his career to just 28 years old.