Rios downs McEnroe and vows to stay unbeaten

Marcelo Rios showed why he is the man to beat on the Merrill Lynch Tour of Champion by defeating John McEnroe 6-2, 6-4 to win his third consecutive title.

The scoreline didn’t do justice to the competetiveness of a match that was played in front of a packed crowd, and often saw the American pushing an opponent 17 years his junior.

«It feels really good to beat a great champion like McEnroe», said Rios, who extended his lead in the South African Airways Champions Tour Rankings.

«He is a special player, but I played really good and I think we made everyone here happy».

McEnroe was disappointed not to be able to successfully defend his crown, but warned Rios that he would be back for more.

«I’m not giving up!», he said.

«There were times when I thought I was starting to get through, and maybe when we get on some of the faster indoor surfaces like in London at the Royal Albert Hall, it will be different. But he’s so fast, and he takes the ball so early. He’s really tough».

McEnroe started well enough, holding serve comfortably to level at 1-all, but it quickly went downhill from there. He had a point to lead 2-1, but couldn’t take it, and was immediately broken. Then, with Rios trying to consolidate the break, McEnroe netted a make-able forehand volley at 30-30. The game went to Deuce, and Rios held firm to establish a 3-1 lead.

After that the Chilean went into overdrive, showing his full repertoire of spins and angles. He bamboozled McEnroe with an impossibly acute crosscourt forehand winner to break again and lead 5-1. McEnroe wasn’t about to give up. A few stiff serves and an argument with the umpire over a Rios groundstroke that he thought was long, and the American had held serve for 5-2.

Rios didn’t need a second invitation to serve out and take the set 6-2.

A major row erupted at the start of the second set. With McEnroe serving, a Rios forehand flashed past the American. The ball was called out by the line-judge, and Rios crashed his racquet to the ground in protest. The Chair Umpire over-ruled the decision, and called the ball in. McEnroe went ballistic, sending a withering tirade of abuse in the direction of umpire Paulo Oliveira.

If anything, the argument seemed to inspire McEnroe, who then held serve and seemed to have Rios rocking in the second game. A couple of winners gave him a 15-30 advantage, but Rios held firm to level at 1-all.

Again McEnroe had the Chilean at 15-30, again Rios fought off the danger to lead 2-1, and then he struck.

Three sublime winners gave Rios a 0-40 advantage, and although McEnroe saved two break points, he couldn’t salvage a third – hitting a backhand just wide, and then hurling his racquet into his chair.

Still McEnroe stayed with Rios, holding serve until the Chilean served for the match at 5-4. The American forced two break points with some inspired play from the baseline, but Rios banished them both, and sealed victory with another rifled groundstroke.

«I want to go the whole year unbeaten», said Rios, who has won all of the three events he has played so far.

Next week will be another challenge.

The Tour journeys to Graz for the s Tennis Masters, and Rios will again face McEnroe, as well as Thomas Muster in front of his home crowd, and Goran Ivanisevic.

After Graz, the Tour moves on to the Trophée Jean-Luc Lagardère in Paris in September. The Merrill Lynch Tour of Champions will then visit the Alex Tennis Classics in Eindhoven (October 12-15), the Champions Trophy in Frankfurt (November 16-19) before arriving in London for the season-ending BlackRock Masters (December 5-10).

The BlackRock Masters sees the top ten players in the South African Airways Champions Tour Rankings compete for a $100,000 winners’ prize. The field at the Royal Albert Hall in London will increase to 12 with the addition of two wild card invitations.