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Steve Flink: Rios Remains Enigmatic

12/19/2011 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

From the time he established himself as a prominent figure in the world of tennis, Marcelo Rios seemed to have an unfortunate knack for damaging his reputation every chance he got. He was, of course, his own worst enemy, a player widely and justifiably disparaged by his colleagues, a man who was detested by the vast majority of the media, a fellow who never connected with the public despite his astonishing flair and imagination. This left-handed Chilean had it all going for him—backcourt skills that were often mind boggling, a magnificent return of serve, variety off the ground set him completely apart from his rivals. Rios had an incomparable vision on the court, a sense of building a point that no one could surpass, a brilliance that could belong only to a genius; he played the game on his terms, with total originality and verve.

And yet, Rios was so deeply flawed and so steeped in insecurity that he never came close to realizing his potential. To be sure, he did accomplish on a significant scale. After capturing the U.S. Open junior event in 1993, he climbed to the top of the ITF Junior rankings, residing at No. 1 in the world on that esteemed list. He turned professional the following year, and finished that season at No. 107 in the world. By the end of 1995, he was at No. 25. At this juncture of his career, there was virtually no stopping him. He concluded 1996 at No. 11, and then rose to No. 10 in the year-end ATP World Tour Rankings for 1997; in that campaign, he was twice a quarterfinalist at the Grand Slam events, while advancing to the round of 16 in his other two appearances.

Everyone knew full well that Rios would be a major force in the sport during the 1998 season, and he clearly lived up to that billing, rising to No. 2 in the world after briefly residing at No. 1 following a remarkable straight set triumph over Andre Agassi in the final of Miami. Rios made it to the final of the Australian Open that year, falling in abysmal fashion against Petr Korda. But, despite that failure, he seemed certain to succeed at a major sometime over the next couple of years. Rios did maintain his top ten status in 1999, but his permanent decline had begun. He would leave the sport in 2004 largely unfulfilled. Never again did he come even close to reaching a major final, with serious injuries and a good deal of indifference crippling the Chilean.

Meanwhile, Rios kept suffering from self-inflicted wounds, insulting nearly everyone who crossed his path, making considerably more enemies than friends. Now, seven-and-a-half years after his ungraceful departure, Rios is the subject of a brand new biography written by one of the sport’s inimitable characters, Scoop Malinowski. An American writer with a deep appreciation of the game and its finest performers, Malinowski has made a gallant attempt to get to the heart of an infuriating individual in his newly released book, Marcelo Rios: The Man We Barely Knew. Malinowski’s task was daunting. He gathered a wide range of material from writers, players, fans, umpires and others inside the tennis community, but Rios clearly was not cooperative. The book cries out for his voice, for explanations of his often despicable conduct, for reflections from the man himself on how he developed such a rare talent. Yet Rios only appears in post-match interview transcripts culled from different stages of his career. These transcripts clarify things here and there about the man and his outlook, but they are insufficient in allowing readers to gain a more nuanced view of the Chilean.

Furthermore, Malinowski elects to structure the book unconventionally. It is essentially a constant stream of quotes from a good many sources, with everyone lending their wisdom and insights on Rios. There is some value in that. But I wish Malinowski—a bright man who knows the game well—had given us more of a narrative in his book, rather than relying almost exclusively on the quotes. He plainly has a great deal of passion about Rios the player, and immense curiosity about Rios the man. Malinowski has been covering the sport since 1992. He unquestionably put his heart and soul into this project, and was determined to allow readers to know the essential Rios. As he explains in his introduction, “I wrote this book because Marcelo Rios is the most entertaining and talented tennis champion I ever saw. No disrespect to John McEnroe, Roger Federer, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, Rod Laver, Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Serena Williams, Don Budge, but Rios had something they don’t. It’s hard to describe what that elusive, mysterious quality was. This book will try to solve the puzzle of the man we barely knew, Marcelo Rios.”

That puzzle is never fully solved, but don’t blame Malinowski. He does his very best to use those he interviewed to accurately portray who Rios is, to enlighten us as much as possible. Malinowski sought the opinions of a remarkably wide cast of individuals, and gathered some very good material. One of the crucial people who spoke with Malinowski was Nick Bollettieri, a former coach of Rios. Bollettieri candidly comments, “I believe the player who has probably disappointed me the most was Marcelo Rios. He disappointed me because God really awarded him hands and eyes and feet that were just beyond description. He never lived up to his expectations both as a role model for the game and to really fulfill his talent as a player. I believe Marcelo Rios could have been a far better player than he was.”

Brad Gilbert was coaching Andre Agassi when the American was toppled in straight sets by Rios in that final of Miami in 1998. It was one of the most dazzling displays of shot making virtuosity ever given by Rios, and Gilbert was highly impressed. He tells Malinowski, “One of the greatest matches I ever saw anybody play against Andre was that match in 98’. When Andre played Rios I was thinking Andre was gonna be pretty straightforward, just taking care of business. And this guy [Rios] hit angles and hit shots and he served and he played—like, I thought he was destined to win at least five majors the way he was playing. [He had] a lot of talent.”

The great Australian doubles player Todd Woodbridge happened to ride on the same media bus back to Manhattan as Malinowski from the U.S. Open in 2009, and he offered his perspective on what held Rios back. “He’d tank a tournament here and there,” said Woodbridge of Rios, “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 Rios would turn up and he didn’t want to play…. But he was probably one of the most smooth ball strikers of the last 15 to 20 years. He could play looking like he wasn’t hitting the ball very hard, but it came off his racket with interest. He had a great understanding of the different angles because of being left-handed. He could create and move you around to different places that you don’t normally see right-handed players do.  It was a bit of a shame. I don’t think he achieved as much as he could have out of the game.”

The reverence for Rios’ gifts as a player are countless in this book, and deservedly so. That is why so many people felt he did not live up to his potential. If there is one critical thread running seamlessly through the pages of Malinowski’s book, it is the prevailing view that Rios did not do himself justice as a player. Listen to Michael Joyce, the former American player who went on to coach Maria Sharapova.  “People don’t really remember Rios that well, “he asserts. “ They say that he never won a major or that he was an underachiever.  But playing with him—he was a magician. I played with Agassi and Sampras, two or three times each. But I always tell people that Rios was the best tennis player that I ever played. If he had the same mentality as Agassi, I mean… he was tougher than Agassi to play. The things he could do on the tennis court were amazing…. The way tennis is today, tennis needs a character like Marcelo Rios. Though he had a reputation as a bad guy, I think he was misunderstood. It was partially his own fault.”

In my view, it was nearly entirely Rios’s fault. Here is a comment in the book from one of the sport’s most affable and well liked individuals, ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale. “There was nobody in all of sports that I met who was more negative [than Rios]. He had the biggest chip on his shoulder. One time I walked up to him, knowing his reputation. He looked at me with my hand extended, and walked away. He walked over to the elevator and went to his hotel room. It was the damndest thing I ever saw.”

One of the fairest assessments of Rios in the book comes from the thoughtful former player and commentator Luke Jensen, who more recently has done a terrific job coaching the women’s college team at Syracuse University. “He was just a lightning rod,” says Jensen of Rios, “a polarizing figure in the game, because you either liked or hated him. He didn’t care either way.”

Sadly for Rios, there were considerably more people in tennis who abhorred Rios than those who genuinely liked or admired him. He was so caught up in himself that he seldom seemed to have anything left for others. Wellar Evans worked at the ATP for 25 years. In his important roles for that organization, he knew the players as people much more than superficially. Evans saw sides of these men that no one else was exposed to. Asked by Malinowski in an interview for the book to give his take on Rios, he is forthcoming and fascinating on the subject of the Chilean.

Evans tells Malinowski, “Probably the biggest mistake that I made in my 25 years at the ATP was not letting Marcelo Rios go to jail in 1995 in Cincinnati.”

That is a bold statement, but Evans backs it up, explaining that at the ATP World Tour event in Cincinnati, every player is allowed to have a car for the week while they are in the tournament. In 1995, Rios was still only 19 and the rule was for players to be at least 21 to get the car. Rios’s coach signed the papers and said he would be driving the car rather than Rios. But Rios took over the wheel, racing out of the parking lot at 50 MPH, nearly running down a police officer. The police chased Rios down and were prepared to arrest him.

But, as Evans recounts, “I made the mistake of speaking to the police and diffusing the situation, telling them it would not happen again and that we would take responsibility for Marcelo Rios the rest of the week. So they relented and didn’t take him to downtown Mason, Ohio. I would say that is probably my biggest mistake because maybe one night in jail might have been the best thing for Marcelo’s personal development. That was a watershed moment. But unfortunately I let the moment pass.”

Malinowski mentioned to Evans that Rios seemed spoiled and immature. Evans responded, “That’s quite honestly the air that he gave off throughout his career: a spoiled kid who was immature and who just didn’t care. Mark Woodforde, a pretty astute individual and student of the game, predicted that, even at the height of Rios’s career, that he wouldn’t win a Grand Slam because he didn’t have the heart and fortitude. Mark Woodforde was astute enough to realize that Rios didn’t have what it takes.”

Luke Jensen gave Malinowski a different way of looking at Rios, at explaining his originality, at getting to the essence of the man and the player. He says, “The biggest thing that will always jump out to me is, as you know, Rios gets to No. 1 in the world and he tells Larry Stefanki [his coach]: ‘I just don’t like the direction I am going.’ That will always stick in my mind. Just because it wasn’t about No. 1. It wasn’t about beating everybody. It was kind of about playing the game. It was about going out there and trying to play a very difficult game, the way he played and the way he had to play. His game was that way. Just let him do his thing. Don’t try to reset it or box it up and everything like that. Just keep his game. And everything he brought was truly from a universe away. That’s what he did. He just made that massive jump, and played a game that we haven’t seen yet. He was just a misunderstood genius that was more of a movement/revolution.”

Rios remains as enigmatic as ever. In May of 2009, as Malinowski reports in the book, Rios was married for the third time. He turns 36 on December 26. Marcelo Rios: The Man We Barely Knew  is the title of the book. The man is perplexing, unexplainable, a mystery of a man. But Skip Malinowski must be admired for his tenacity and temerity in taking on a project that few would have dared to confront. Because Skoop Malinowski was so persistent in gathering informed points of view on Marcelo Rios, because he exhausted every avenue to find learned observers to talk about Rios, because he left no stone unturned in his pursuit of understanding Rios, we can at least feel as if we have come closer to understanding this complicated and fundamentally objectionable man than ever before.