If you ask most people about the great male tennis players of the late 1990s and early 2000s, they will undoubtedly mention Sampras and Agassi- some will remember a young Hewitt or Guga Kuerten, perhaps even Safin or Kafelnikov. Those who enjoy a big serve might recall Krajicek, Rusedski and Ivanisevic with affection. There is one man, however, whom I believe was truly one of the great tennis entertainers, and who spent several weeks ranked number 1 in 1998, whom I suspect would not be that widely remembered now. His name was Marcelo Rios.
Marcelo Rios was born in Chile in 1975. He took up tennis at the age of eleven, and by the time he was seventeen he was the number one junior in the world. In 1996, he entered the top 10 of the senior rankings for the first time. By 1998, he was world number 1 for a spell, and reached the final of the Australian Open, as well as winning 3 of what would ultimately be 5 Masters Series events. Sadly, by 1999 he started to suffer from injuries, and in subsequent years his physical struggles meant that he was rarely able to recapture his best form on a consistent basis. He finally retired in 2004, unable to regain the necessary level of fitness, at the age of just 28.
The brief summary of his career in the last paragraph should be enough to show that he was a genuine top player. However, the statistics really do not do justice to his talent. I’ve watched and played a huge amount of tennis, and I’ve never been more thoroughly entertained than I was when watching Marcelo Rios. He was not a particularly big man, being approximately 5’9″ in height. He moved extremely well in his heyday, and he had a useful left-handed serve, particularly for his height, as well as being solid off the ground. What made Marcelo really special was his control over the tennis ball. He could disguise all manner of changes of pace and angle, and could be incredibly creative. If he wanted to, he could destroy players of lesser talent with his skills. Sometimes, when watching Marcelo, you would simply have to marvel at the shot-making. If you have a chance, I would strongly recommend watching some of the clips of his tennis on YouTube. If you have a little more time, remind yourself of how the other players mentioned above played- if you don’t think Rios was more entertaining I will be very surprised. In fact, if anyone outside of the Sampras household thinks he was better to watch than Rios, I would be extremely interested to hear why!
So why isn’t Marcelo Rios generally regarded as a true legend of the game? Whilst watching him play was a genuine joy for anyone who loved tennis, Marcelo did not always seem to gain as much pleasure from it as he could have done. There were a few occasions when he did not really appear to be in the mood. He was also famous for his aversion to the media. In his younger days, he gave some very tetchy-sounding interviews, and he was not keen on spending his time signing autographs. This led to him being quite unpopular in many quarters. Yet there are plenty of examples of former players and tournament staff who actually knew Marcelo saying how pleasant and likeable they found him. What could have explained this contradiction? Perhaps part of the answer became clear in 2014 when Marcelo gave an interview in which he noted that he believed that he suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome.
Asperger’s Syndrome is a condition on the autism spectrum which is normally characterised by obsessive behaviour, and difficulty in social interactions, especially due to a lack of empathy. Those with the condition often have difficulty ‘reading’ other people, and can appear insensitive- they may shy away from large groups and prefer their own company. Imagine how difficult someone with these characteristics would find the life of a top tennis player. They would probably feel that autograph hunters were crowding them, and would not really understand how to relate to the media, or indeed how people would perceive their behaviour. It certainly appears that Marcelo was unloved by the majority of the public due to factors that were entirely beyond his control. So maybe we should reassess things retrospectively and recognise him as a true great of the game?
From a psychological perspective, perhaps there was a role for more mental skills-related assistance in Marcelo’s career. He could perhaps have benefited from assistance with controlling his emotions on court, which could have made him even harder to beat. Equally importantly, a psychology consultant could perhaps have helped him with dealing with the off-court issues, and contributed to his feeling happier and more comfortable. If he had enjoyed himself more, he might have been even more successful, and could have left an even greater sporting legacy.