The Number Ones

Marcelo Rios: The First South American No. 1

The gifted Chilean reached the top spot at junior, professional and senior levels

July 23, 2020
Marcelo Rios won the ATP Masters 1000 event in Miami in 1998 to rise to World No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings.
Robert Sullivan/Getty Images
Marcelo Rios won the ATP Masters 1000 event in Miami in 1998 to rise to World No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings. By Tom Allen

As a part of a series highlighting all players to reach World No. 1, looks back on the career of Marcelo Rios. View Full List

First week at No. 1: 30 March 1998
Total weeks at No. 1: 6

At World No. 1
Rios became the first South American to claim the World No. 1 position in the PIF ATP Rankings on 30 March 1998. Having opened the year with a title run in Auckland and a runner-up finish at the Australian Open, the Chilean completed the ‘Sunshine Double’ to leapfrog Pete Sampras and Petr Korda into the top position. Rios dropped just two sets across 11 matches in Indian Wells and Miami, claiming the top spot with a 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 victory against Andre Agassi in Key Biscayne. Following that victory, the Santiago native returned to his hometown to celebrate his achievement with then-Chilean president Eduardo Frei. Rios waved to huge crowds from the balcony at La Moneda Presidential Palace, where he was given a hero’s welcome. "There were a lot of people waiting for [me]. They want to be with you and, after that, [I] became more like an idol in Chile because of becoming No. 1,” said Rios. The left-hander maintained the position for four weeks and once again overtook Sampras later that year to return to the top spot for a further two weeks on 10 August.

Grand Slam Highlights
Rios’ best Grand Slam result came at the 1998 Australian Open, when the Chilean advanced to the championship match. Rios entered the event after winning the ASB Classic in Auckland and extended his winning streak to 11 matches by reaching the final in Melbourne. The 22-year-old earned wins against Thomas Enqvist and Alberto Berasategui en route the championship match, where he was beaten in straight sets by Korda. Rios reached back-to-back Roland Garros quarter-finals in 1998 and 1999 and also reached the last eight at the US Open in 1997. At Wimbledon, Rios’ best run came in 1997 when he fell to three-time champion Boris Becker in the Round of 16.

Tour Highlights
Rios captured 18 tour-level trophies from 31 finals during his career. In May 1995, the artistic Chilean lifted his first ATP Tour title in Bologna. “It was one of the best moments of my career, winning my first ATP [Tour title],” said Rios. Two years later, Rios clinched his first Super 9 title [now named ATP Masters 1000] at the 1997 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. The World No. 10 did not drop a set in the Principality and beat three Spanish players — Albert Costa, Carlos Moya and Alex Corretja — en route to the title. Rios won a further four Super 9 crowns, including three triumphs at the level in 1998. Two months after his famous ‘Sunshine Double’ run to reach No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings in March 1998, Rios also claimed the Internazionali BNL d’Italia title in Rome. With wins against Felix Mantilla, Mark Philippoussis and Andre Agassi, Rios also won the 1998 Grand Slam Cup. The Chilean claimed his final ATP Tour trophy in Hong Kong in 2001.

Biggest Rivalries
Between 1995 and 2002, Rios contested 10 ATP Head2Head encounters against former World No. 2 and two-time Roland Garros finalist Alex Corretja. With five wins apiece, Rios and Corretja were evenly matched on the court and the pair also split their only two final meetings. Entering the 1997 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters final, Rios and Corretja were level at 2-2 in their rivalry. Rios produced a dominant display to take the title, firing an overhead winner to complete a straight-sets victory in the Principality. Three weeks later, Corretja gained revenge with a straight-sets win of his own to clinch his maiden Super 9 trophy at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome.

Rios also finished tied in his ATP Head2Head rivalry with fellow left-hander Korda (4-4). Rios and Korda contested each of their eight encounters at Grand Slam and ATP Masters 1000 events, with the Czech winning their only final meeting at the 1998 Australian Open. Rios won three of five clashes against Korda on hard courts and also triumphed against the former World No. 2 in their only clay-court meeting at Roland Garros in 1996.

As the first South American to reach World No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings, Rios remains an inspiration to players from the region. The 5’9” Santiago native possessed incredible feel and opened the court with unrivalled creativity to achieve success throughout his relatively short career. Rios achieved his best results at the end of the 20th century, finishing in the year-end Top 10 of the PIF ATP Rankings from 1997 to 1999. Leg and back injuries forced the 18-time tour-level titlist to retire from the sport at the age of 28 in 2004, but Rios soon returned to action on the ATP Champions Tour two years later. At the Senior level, Rios won six tournaments and achieved the No. 1 Ranking. He is the only player to ever rank No. 1 as a junior, professional and senior.

Overall Match Win-Loss Record: 391-192
Overall Titles/Finals Record: 18-13

Memorable Moment
In March 1998, Rios followed in the footsteps of Americans Jim Courier (1991), Michael Chang (1992) and Sampras (1994) to become only the fourth man to complete the 'Sunshine Double' in Indian Wells and Miami. It was a run that led Rios to World No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings. Arriving in Indian Wells as the World No. 7, Rios trailed No. 1 Sampras by 939 points and took advantage of the American’s early exits at both events. Chasing his 11th straight victory, the talented Chilean earned a milestone win after one hour and 57 minutes as Agassi failed to find the court with a backhand return. Rios threw his racquet into the crowd and began waving a Chilean flag in celebration. “Sampras had been No. 1 for a long time, most of the past five years, so it was a big achievement to win two Super 9 [titles] in a row beating great players,” said Rios. “Beating Agassi in Miami, his own country, was obviously one of my best matches that I always will remember.”

Moya on Rios
”He was a different player, you could see that from the first moment you saw him on court. He was probably the most talented player I ever saw. You could enjoy watching him a lot. He was great for tennis, had a different style of playing and was very talented.”

Rios on Rios
”I think it was a big step going from junior to professional, but in my first year I already broke into the Top 100 and aged 22 I became No. 1. Everything was really fast.”

Broadcaster/Journalist Graeme Agars
Rios was highly respected as a player with so much natural talent that he made the game look easy. When in full flight, the left-hander could frustrate and challenge any player in the world. His talent, combined with a hard work ethic on the practice court, made him a formidable opponent.

The pity of it was that his career was cut short in what should have been his prime and, by the age of just 27, his troublesome back finally forced him out of the game. The Chilean’s last major appearance came at Roland Garros in 2003.

Rios’ greatest achievement was becoming the first player from Latin America to reach the No.1 position in the PIF ATP Rankings in March 1998, resulting in a massive public celebration in the streets of Santiago. He was later named as Chile’s ‘Best Athlete of the 20th Century’.

It wasn’t the only time Rios had been on top of a ranking list, having also been the best junior player in the world before turning pro in 1995. At the age of 30, he won six ATP Champions Tour events in a row to finish 2006 on top. In doing so, Rios became the only man to have been the top-ranked player in the junior, professional and senior categories.

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