Widely regarded as the greatest “bad boy” in the history of modern tennis, the Chilean Marcelo Rios, who briefly held the world number one ranking in 1998, was also an exceptionally gifted player. Handicapped by injuries and a constantly cavalier attitude, he was forced to end his career prematurely with a feeling of incompleteness. His story…
"Marcelo Rios? He's the biggest prick I've ever met. When somebody doesn't sign autographs for the kids, that's a prick to me. He did not deserve to be number one. I never say anything about anybody else like this but about him I have to say this. Sorry."
Ilie Nastase didn’t beat around the bush. When asked by Scoop Malinowski, author of the only biography dedicated to Marcelo Rios*, the former Romanian champion is adamant about the personality of the man who was the World No. 1 for six weeks in 1998. He’s far from alone in this view. For example, John McEnroe once called him a "little Chilean shit",
while the highly respected U.S. magazine Sports Illustrated
made an article about him with the title: "The most hated man in tennis."
“It doesn’t even cover the money I spent at the casino.”
How did he end up being so badly regarded? To try to understand, we must go back to the beginning. Raised in a middle-class family in Santiago, Marcelo Rios quickly turned out to be very good at tennis, a sport he learnt in a prestigious private school of the Chilean capital. A genius of the yellow ball, he turned pro in 1994 at age 18, despite the doubts of a strict father, who quickly demanded results. They would come beyond his wildest expectations. After entering the top 100 in his first year on the ATP Tour "El Chino
", as people called him, won his first titles in 1995. Everything was almost too easy for him, so he became arrogant; with his opponents, the press and even his own supporters, he looked upon them all with contempt. "He was made to play tennis, not for everything around it; that doesn't mean that he was insensitive
" offers the Argentine Hernan Gumy, at the time one of his only friends on the tour, as a justification.
After his first major prestigious victory in Monte Carlo in 1997, Rios lashed out, declaring upon the presentation of his winner’s cheque that "It doesn't even cover the money I spent at the casino this week".
From 1996 to 1999, the Chilean owned the Lemon Prize at Roland Garros, rewarding the most unpleasant player of the competition, still a record! Marcelo Rios was as charmless off-court as he was talented on it. In March 1998, after successive victories at the tournaments of Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, he took the mantle of world No. 1, a first for a South American player. To the reporter who went to gather what he assumed would be his joy at joining the illustrious Guillermo Vilas in the pantheon of South American tennis, he replied curtly: "Vilas? Who's Vilas? He was never number one
Monica Seles’ “fat arse”
Such was Marcelo Rios - a genius with a detestable character, boorish enough as to call Monica Seles "fat arse
". This constant wickedness certainly cost him a few wins, as evidenced by Scoop Malinowski: "Because of his attitude off the court, some opponents were over-motivated when facing him. Carlos Moya admitted for example to have played the best match of his career when he beat him in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros in 1998, the year he won it
." It is the misfortune of Rios: he never managed to win a single Grand Slam tournament, when he could "have won ten
" said Marat Safin.
"On talent alone, he had the means to win a Grand Slam, but perhaps he didn’t have the physical ability to play seven best-of-five-set games for two weeks"
said his biographer. His small size - 5.7 ft. and a shade under 10 stones at his best - played against him, maybe as much as his impatience on the court. Gifted, Marcelo Rios was maybe not demanding enough of himself for the long haul at the top. "He had the abilities of a champion but didn’t give the impression of doing whatever it takes to be one
." Retired a first time in 2003 and again in 2007 after a failed comeback attempt, the former bad boy of the ATP has since returned to his home country, working with his father in the construction business. With the rocks at least, there is no need to sign autographs.
By Régis Delanoë
* Marcelo Rios: The Man We Barely Knew