'Misunderstood' Rios advances No. 2 seed downs Vacek

Chilean's fans excuse pleasureless approach

September 03, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- High above the Arthur Ashe Stadium court, hundreds of Chileans have gathered. Their red-white-and-blue clothing and large, single-star flags would have singled them out, even if their loud chants don't.

Below them, playing his first-round match in the U.S. Open, is Marcelo Rios, the No. 2 seed. He is 5 feet 8, 140 pounds and, much of the time, he comes across as a fairly miserable guy.

But up here, in the dizzying upper deck, the Chilean contingent says tennis fans and commentators have it wrong.

"He can be cold because he is so focused on his tennis," said Cristobal Brahm, who will fly home to Santiago, Chile, a happy man because he saw Rios beat Daniel Vacek yesterday, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.

"But he is not miserable. At home, in Chile, he is a very funny guy when we see him on TV shows. To us, he is a really big star, like [Pete] Sampras is to you here."

When Rios earned his first No. 1 ranking early this year, more than 10,000 people surged into the streets of Santiago and cheered him in the capital's main square.

Yesterday, Rios, who has quite a charming -- though rare -- smile, recalled the incident.

"It was a great moment," he said. "I will always remember being there, all the people supporting me and going down the street and everybody going crazy. I think, you live that one time in your life and it is a pretty good moment."

Yesterday, too, was a good moment. He made only 11 unforced errors, served well and seemingly had no trouble at all with Vacek, who had beaten him soundly just two weeks ago.

The day was not so pleasing to No. 4 seed Petr Korda, who became the only seeded men's player to lose yesterday when he was upset by Bernd Karbacher, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1.

Last night, women's No. 1 Martina Hingis and men's No. 1 Sampras had their matches postponed by rain. Hingis was to play Iva Majoli and Sampras was scheduled to meet Paul Goldstein of Rockville.

Rios had not played well in more than a week before coming to the Open, but said he feels excited and energized.

"I think I feel better on hard courts than I have on clay," he said. "I am really hungry for playing a match and trying to win matches."

Few outside the upper decks give Rios much of a chance to win this Open.

Tennis experts, like USA Network's Barry McKay, CBS' Mary Carillo and Tony Trabert, who won the Open in 1953 and 1956, are unanimous in saying Rios is too unstable, too immature and not a good enough competitor -- yet -- to get the job done.

They have ammunition. Twice, Rios has displaced Sampras as the No. 1 player in the world, and twice he has turned right around and handed the ranking back.

The experts also point out that despite winning five tournaments this season, Rios has yet to win a Grand Slam event. In fact, he has made it to only one Grand Slam final -- the French Open, where he lost to Carlos Moya in May.

"If they are so concerned about Grand Slams," said Rios, "then they should have a ranking that ranks Grand Slam winners and don't count all the other tournaments we play during the year.

"I don't think I need to prove anything to anybody. I saw a story the other day that said, well, how can a guy be No. 1 without winning a tournament on clay? There are all kinds of views."

In Chile, Rios is considered the latest coming of John McEnroe, a fact that makes McKay laugh.

"That being the case," McKay said, "then everybody down there doesn't love him."

But up there, above the skyboxes, those animated Chileans seem to have no problem with Rios. Alan Berrios, a Chilean who lives in New Jersey, said Rios "is our Michael Jordon. He's his own character and we love him." And Francisco Soto, 22, who flew in from Chile with his mother, Marcia, just for this two-week event to see Rios, added: "We're very proud of him.

"I think he's a very, let's say, introverted person and I think he's a very professional guy. He doesn't care too much about the jet set or the crowd or the media. He just plays tennis."

As for being funny, Rios actually laughed.

"I can be," he said.

118th U.S. Open

When: Through Sept. 13.

Where: National Tennis Center, New York.

TV: 11 a.m., 7: 30 p.m., USA

Today's featured matches:

Day session, begins 11 a.m.

Venus Williams (5) vs. Anne Kreme

Lindsay Davenport (2) vs. Lori McNeil

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (4) vs. Fabiola Zuluaga

Andre Agassi (8) vs. Guillaume Raoux

Patrick Rafter (3) vs. Hernan Gumy

Jonas Bjorkman (12) vs. Jonathan Stark

Night session, begins 7: 30 p.m.

Anna Kournikova (15) vs. Radka Bobkova

Goran Ivanisevic (14) vs. Todd Martin

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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