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Moody Rios Strikes First and Wins

Tennis: Whether Chilean player's nasty demeanor is an act or not, he's No. 3 in world after Champions Cup victory.

March 16, 1998|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — A proud country is waiting to embrace him, but Chile's Marcelo Rios doesn't want any of this warm and fuzzy stuff.

"I'm not nice," he says. "I don't care."

He's as nasty as he wants to be. Does he like himself?

"Not at all," he says.

Give the guy some credit. He gets there quickly, ripping himself before anyone else does. And his tennis game was an extension of his personality on Sunday, striking first and imposing his baseline will in the final of the Newsweek Champions Cup, as he defeated Greg Rusedski of England, 6-3, 6-7 [15-17], 7-6 [7-4], 6-4, at Grand Champions Resort.

The 2-hour 46-minute victory means yet another breakthrough for the Australian Open finalist. Rios will be No. 3 in the world, trailing only Pete Sampras and Petr Korda when the new ATP rankings are released today. The 22-year-old was the sole player on the men's tour to reach the fourth round or better of the four Grand Slam tournaments in 1997.

This, of course, has created a bit of commotion back home in Santiago. Rios is front-page news in Chile, and his matches are shown live, whether it's from Dubai, Memphis, Tenn., or Indian Wells. He is second in popularity only to star soccer striker Marcelo Salas.

But he spars regularly with some media members in Chile, whether it's over his unflattering nickname or the tendency to treat his losses like national disasters, like soccer defeats.

"There's certain guys that try to pull you down," Rios said. "In my country, there's a lot of journalists, they invent things."

Nevertheless, part of his pouty, bad-boy image is a put on.

"I guess he's trying to get that sort of reputation," Rusedski said. "It might sell more clothes in Chile."

Winning is helping too.

Here, Rios lost only one set in five matches, and it took the longest tiebreaker of 1998 to do it. Rusedski won it, 17-15, and fought off five set points and won it on his seventh set point, putting away a forehand volley.

"It's tough to count [the points] when you're in there," Rios said. "I thought we were going to play a lot of tiebreaks because of him serving big. I knew I was going to hold my serve, because from the baseline he's not very good."

Rusedski, who will move from No. 7 to No. 5 today, said he felt the key to the match was the third-set tiebreaker. From 3-3 in the tiebreaker, he won only one more point [a 136 mph service winner] and lost the final four points.

Rios held serve the entire match, facing only three break points, two came in the opening game of the match. Rusedski did not serve particularly well. Though he had 21 aces, his first-serve percentage was 49%.

Rusedski, the Canadian turned Briton, kept establishing records with his service speed this week, hitting 149 mph on Saturday. He reached 141 twice on Sunday. But Rios is one of the best returners in the game, and actually got back a serve of 140 mph in the sixth game of the third set, and Rusedski hit a backhand volley in the net.

Rios eliminated the need for a tiebreaker in the fourth set when he broke serve at 4-4 when Rusedski double-faulted at 15-40. One game later, it was over. And two Chilean flags in the south end of the stadium and another in the north were held high in jubilation.

Afterward, Rios reflected on his career choice. Instead of having to deal with 10 other teammates on the soccer field--though he seems to have the striker's moody mentality--and the strict rules of the Chilean classroom, he found tennis to be a perfect hideaway.

"I hated school," he said. "I didn't want to go to school. When they told me, 'You want to play tennis or go to school?' I didn't think twice. They say if I do well, I'm going to start playing tennis. I won like nine out of 10 [junior] tournaments. That's why I say, 'OK, I'm going to try.' "

And the rest is history. But don't ask him about it too much.

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