The author of a new book on Marcelo Rios argues that the Chilean, not Andy Murray, is the greatest player without a grand slam title.
Marat Safin, a former US Open and Australian Open champion, tells me how the Chilean had the talent to win “ten grand slams”. Thomas Johansson, a former winner of the Australian Open, says of Rios, “he could make you feel like it was the first time you were standing on a tennis court, so I hated to play him. You could get killed by him easily, one and one or something like that, and you could have played a good match.”
In the pages of my new book, ‘Marcelo Rios: The Man We Barely Knew’, Pat Cash describes Rios as “one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen. I thought he had a control like a McEnroe. He was brilliant. He hit the ball anywhere. Anywhere.”
Michael Joyce told me, “I played with Sampras and Agassi two or three times each but I always tell people that Marcelo Rios was the best tennis player that I ever played. He was tougher than Agassi to play. The things he could do on the court were amazing…”
That is high praise by some credible figures. Rios, a smallish man at 5 foot nine inches and 160 pounds, was able to win 18 career ATP singles titles and five Masters Series from 1994-2004. His best year was in 1998, when he became the world number one player at the age of 22 after defeating Andre Agassi in straight sets in the Key Biscayne final. Rios reigned as the premier player in the world rankings for six weeks – but from that point on his career leveled and then gradually declined. Rios retired at age 28 because of an accumulation of injuries, and his last match was a retirement loss to Mariano Delfino at a Satellite in Mexico City.
Without question, Rios was a uniquely grand talent who played tennis unlike any other player. Check out some of the videos of Rios on YouTube and you will be amazed. Rios even invented a shot – the now much-imitated two-handed backhand jumpshot. Did Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Borg or Federer create a new shot? No. Well maybe the Sampras Slam Dunk might qualify, perhaps.
As spectacular a player as Rios was when he was at his best, he simply fell short of winning a single major tournament, whether it be from a lack of mental discipline, physical shortcomings, or just plain bad luck of having off days when he was closest to reaching the mountain top, such as the 1998 Australian Open final straight-sets failure to Petr Korda.
Here are some views on why the Chilean marvel failed to win a major.
Nick Bollettieri: “I believe that Marcelo had as much talent – feet, movement, anticipation, hands, his eyes – of any player that’s played the game. He wasn’t afraid to work. Marcelo Rios was probably the player that disappointed me the most. Because he never lived up to his expectations both as role model for the game and to really fulfill the talent that he had as a player.”
Todd Woodbridge: “What prevented him from winning a major, week in and week out was that he wasn’t willing to put in the work. He’d tank a tournament here and there. And you’d never see the guys like a Federer or a Hewitt – they never behaved that way. If they lose, they lose trying. So there were some weeks he’d turn up and he didn’t want to play. And that made it hard for him, I think, to go that last, little percentage, that made a grand slam difference.”
Mats Wilander: “The fact that he didn’t win a grand slam and he didn’t do better in grand slams, sometimes that has to do with the mindset. Three out of five sets, two weeks, you’re not there to win a tournament really. You’re there to put in eight hours of work every day. And then at the end of it, there’s one winner. And I think, if you don’t get into the majors early enough in your life, you never really learn how to play the majors. Because it’s a long haul. And I don’t think, for me, he really got it. I really don’t. And some players don’t get it.”
Conclude what you want about Rios and his inconsistency and underachieving reputation but in terms of raw, pure talent, no one could match the pony-tailed Chilean renegade. As talented as David Nalbandian, Tim Henman, Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Todd Martin, Cedric Pioline, Alex Corretja, Andy Murray and Greg Rusedski all were or are, no one ever said of them that they had the talent to win ten slams.
“Marcelo Rios: The Man We Barely Knew” is available at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.