- 27 Apr 2020
What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history
On this day, April 27, in 1997, 21-year old rising star Marcelo Rios from Chile, seed no.7, claimed the title in Monte-Carlo, winning the final in straight sets 6-4 6-3 6-3 against Spaniard Alex Corretja. This was the first step of an eleven-month journey that would take him to become world no.1 in March 1998 (knocking over Pete Sampras). He is the only player in tennis history to have reached that spot without ever winning a Grand Slam tournament.
When given the microphone at the trophy ceremony, he surprised everyone by giving a very short and unconventional speech. The lefty was more gifted with a racket than with words. These final words to the audience confirmed his incapacity at being an ambassador for his sport and sealed his bad boy reputation forever.
The guys involved
Marcelo Rios :
Aged 21, “El Chino” already had quite a reputation. On one hand, he was known to be a very promising and entertaining player: at the age of 17, he was already giving a hard time to world number one Pete Sampras at Roland-Garros (losing 7-6 7-6 6-4). In 1996, at the age of 20, he reached the semi-finals in Indian Wells, Monte-Carlo and Toronto, becoming the first Chilean tennis player ever to enter the Top 10. The Santiago-born started 1997 by reaching the Australian Open quarter finals. But, on the other hand, he was also well known for his bad temper, especially towards fans and journalists : he was very reluctant to sign any autographs (he didn’t “see the point”), and it was almost impossible to get anything out of him in interviews, except mumbles and abuse.
Alex Corretja :
On the opposite, Alex Corretja, aged 23, was known as a very nice, polite tennis player, a guy whom the journalists would call “the Gentleman” in the years to come. Corretja was also not a rookie on the tour. Entering the draw in Monte-Carlo as seed no.12, he had been part of one the biggest tennis dramas in a famous 1996 US Open quarter-final against world number 1 Pete Sampras. In this match, Alex Corretja lost 7-6 5-7 5-7 6-4 7-6, after missing a match point and having his opponent throw up on court in the final tie-break. Corretja eventually grew into one of the most consistent clay-court players of his generation, reaching two finals at the French Open (1998, 2001).
The story took place at the prestigious Monte-Carlo Country Club. Located at the top of the Rocher de Monaco, with a unique perspective on the Mediterranean Sea, the Country Club has hosted one of the oldest international tennis tournaments since 1928. It is usually considered as the start of the clay-court season. In 1997, the tournament was a part of the Super 9 category, the equivalent of today’s Masters 1000 events. When the tournament started that year, the Monte-Carlo crowd knew Marcelo Rios and his attractive game from the year before, when he had made his way into the semi-finals. Corretja had participated only once before and had lost in the first round.
Marcelo Rios arrived at the 1997 MC open displaying a provocative haircut matching his controversial character: a shaven slicked back ponytail making him look like a gangster. He also showed an impressive level of tennis the entire week. He has been brilliantly hitting the ball extremely early, finding unexpected angles and firing his trademark jumping backhands. He didn’t lose a single set before reaching the final, upsetting on his way great clay-court players such as Albert Costa (6-4 7-6) and Carlos Moya (6-4 7-6). Despite his attitude towards the public, his very creative game generated a lot of enthusiasm amongst tennis fans.
Alex Corretja, champion in Estoril the week before, was rising as a new clay-court terror, putting so much spin both on his forehand and backhand side, playing a very “Spanish” type of game. He had not faced any seeded player on his way to the final, as former Roland-Garros champions Sergi Bruguera and Thomas Muster had been both surprisingly defeated by French wild-card Fabrice Santoro.
The two players had played against each other four times already, each of them having won twice. It was then hard to pick a favorite in this showdown between the rising bad boy and Gentleman Alex.
This particular Sunday was a very windy day. Marcelo Rios parked himself on the baseline from the very first points, forcing the Spaniard to run around the court. Corretja seemed a bit short of energy, being in a final for two consecutive weeks. “El Chino” insisted on his backhand side using is typical lefty forehand and used any short ball to step in and fire down-the-line forehand winners or short cross-court backhands. Corretja didn’t have the strength that day to play deep enough to contain his opponent. He was totally outplayed by Marcelo Rios who won in straight sets 6-4 6-3 6-3, claiming his first premium title. But the Chilean had one last surprise up his sleeve for the Monte-Carlo audience…
After showing his trophy to the public, he was given the microphone for the traditional champion speech. A speech done in his very own way. Looking at his prize-money, he just mumbled: “This does not even cover the money that I lost at the casino this week! Thank you, see you next year.” To the astonishment of the officials around, he didn’t say more. Even in this moment, his biggest achievement to date, that’s all he had to say. Ironically, he wouldn’t even see them the following year, as an injury will force him to pull out.
What next ?
The same two players faced each other a couple of weeks later in the final of another Super 9 event in Rome. The outcome was different though: Corretja won 7-5 7-5 6-3. Surprisingly, none of them performed very well at the French Open that year, both reaching only the round of 16, Rios being defeated by Hicham Arazi (6-2 6-1 5-7 7-6) while Corretja lost against qualifier Filip Dewulf (5-7 6-1 6-4 7-5).
Marcelo Rios claimed eight titles in the next 18 months. After a huge start in 1998, when he reached the Australian Open final before winning in both Indian Wells and Miami, he became world no.1 on the March 30th. He would never confirm by winning a Grand Slam. He was also the first player to win all the clay-court Super 9 tournaments (Monte-Carlo in 1997, Rome in 1998, Hamburg in 1999). His later career was disturbed and shortened by repeated injuries pushing him to retire in 2004, aged only 29. His outrageous speech in Monte-Carlo was, but the start of a series of controversies, mostly about his behavior outside the tennis court. He performed some sort of remake of the Monte-Carlo speech in 1998, when the president of Chile invited him to his palace after Rios became world no.1 and asked him if he wanted to say anything to the Chilean people. Rios simply declined in one word: ”No.1”
Alex Corretja climbed up to the 12th rank in the world in 1997, winning another clay-court tournament in Stuttgart. He then became a serious contender for the Roland-Garros crown, a dream he never achieved, being beaten in the final by Moya in 1998 and Kuerten in 2001 making it to the semi-final in 2002. Although he never performed very well in the other Grand Slams (only once did he pass through the round of 16) and was mostly famous for being a clay-court specialist, his biggest achievement has been claiming the Masters Cup title on an indoor court in 1998, which helped him reach his best ranking as world no.2 in February, 1999.
- 1997 Monte-Carlo final highlights (for Tennis TV subscribers)
- Marcelo Rios: the man we barely knew, a book by Scoop Malinowski