In February 1997, the Chilean Marcelo Rios arrived at the Marseille tournament without knowing that he was about to go through the unluckiest week of his life. His luggage was lost, his wallet stolen, he got a thigh injury…nothing was spared. Even if Rios managed to qualify for the final…
Marcelo Ríos wasn’t just one of the most enjoyable tennis players to watch, but also one of the most complicated ones to manage. Tempestuous and unpredictable, the Chilean didn’t care much about his public image in the media, and usually let his left arm do all the talking. Some fantastic shots which enabled him to start the 1997 season very brightly with a quarter final played at the Australian Open (lost against Michael Chang) in January, leading to a week in Marseille in February, to take part in the Open 13. Jean-François Caujolle, a professional tennisman in the 70’s and 80’s who became the head of the Marseille tournament (from its foundation in 1993), recalls : « It was hard to get him to come. For a South-American, coming to play in Europe at this time of the year, was no easy feat. Indoor surfaces weren’t their favorites, and Rios had just played a Davis Cup round in Chile, on clay, with a very important time difference. » And a world number 1 status.
Bye bye to his luggage, and his wallet
« He arrived on Tuesday in the middle of the night, remembers Caujolle, and he had lost his luggage with his rackets and outfits, so things started pretty badly ! » Thankfully, the Chilean had taken two or three rackets with him in the cabin, and new outfits were quickly provided by his sponsor who were contacted by the tournament’s organizers. « It wasn’t difficult to find new outfits, you can always manage. And he was pretty cool about it, even if, on some other matters, he was more complicated to handle. » As predicted, during his stay in Marseille, Marcelo Rios turned out to be pretty withdrawn, but he did the job on the court, going through round after round, even if it meant he had to battle hard. He had to fight through three sets to knock out the Swede Magnus Larsson in the quarter finals. Except that when he walked back to the dressing room, a bad surprise was awaiting, as Rios couldn’t find his wallet, which was stolen during the match. Caujolle remembers a pretty heated situation : « He had a big temper, and this episode added to the pressure there already was. » The wallet incident didn’t last very long, as very quickly after the theft, a mother and her daughter showed up with the object, saying they had found it by accident. Good news, but not enough to calm down Rios.
A speech to threaten
Because even if he had got his wallet back, the money which was inside wasn’t there anymore, which made the Chilean furious : « I remember that they had found it in a bin, at the Open’s exit. And he was almost accusing them of having stolen the cash which was inside. There must have been fifty of a hundred dollars inside, it wasn’t the most important. The most important was that he had all his papers, his passport, his credit cards…etc. » Rios battled again through three sets to win his semi-final, before getting ready to face the Swede Thomas Enqvist in the final. The local newspaper La Provence hyped up the event, with its headline : « Fire and Ice » on its front cover, but the much expected fight didn’t last long. Enqvist easily won the first set, and Rios withdrew from the tournament just after, when he felt pain in his thigh. As for his post-match statement, the loser grabbed the microphone, and carried on with his personal show. Caujolle still remembers : « He started speaking in Spanish and said : ‘I know that the thief is in the stands, I’m watching you, I’m keeping a close eye on you’ .» To top it all off, outside the arena, the partner’s village was being blown out by the wind, and had to be closed, which had never happened before. Despite all of this, Jean François Caujolle keeps good memories of this 97 edition of the Marseille Open, and still praises Rios’ attitude : « He hasn’t been unpleasant once during the whole week. He was a pretty taciturn guy, but compared to everything that had happened to him during that week, he could have been much grumpier. »