A few weeks ago, through a Live in Instagram, the name of Marcelo Rios He was once again the protagonist. The former world number 1 gave a brief overview of his career during an hour of talk, recovering some memories and anecdotes that defined him as a player. However, few stopped at the figure on the other side of the screen. Alex Rossi (Entre Ríos, 1960) is, until now, the only person who was able to contact Chino during this quarantine. He was the one who trained him from 12 to 18 years old, who laid the foundations for the game in its formation stage and who generated a friendship relationship almost thirty years ago that, after some ups and downs, still continues. Break point He was able to speak with the Argentine coach to tell us his story. This time, he is the protagonist.
At what point does tennis come into your life?
My grandfather was the founder of a club in Tucumán, the city where I grew up. Since I was little I started to play, I got to be well placed among the Argentine juniors, but at 19 I had to start working at the club. I started working as a teacher, although I was still very young. Then I started training a girl, Mercedes Paz, who would end up being very good and partnering with Gabriela Sabatini. At that time I saw that he was increasingly involved in tennis, until Patricio Apey appeared and ended up taking the final leap.
The first time you packed.
Patricio was Sabatini’s coach, I got to him through Mercedes Paz and immediately started working at the Academy he had in Miami. At that stage I began to travel with some players around the circuit, it was a very beautiful period where I also saw the Cayo Vizcaíno tournament grow from its beginnings. Suddenly, one day I met Hans Gildemeister’s brother, one of the most famous Chilean tennis players. He constantly told me that I had to go live in Chile, that his brother wanted to set up an Academy there. I was not clear, it was fine with Apey, but that same current reached the ears of Hans, who was told that there was an Argentine coach who was doing very well and that he had to take him with him.
That coach was you.
The same (laughs). At the end I ended up talking to Hans, he told me that he had very good references about my work and he suggested that I go with him to direct his Academy in Chile. At that moment I said no, the reality was that I was very comfortable in Miami but, after insisting and inviting me to Chile, I ended up taking it as a challenge. We decided to go to Chile in 1988, now I have been living here for 32 years.
Didn’t you think you were taking a step back?
Great that question, you gave me where it hurts. The truth was that some problems began to arise with Apey and that was what led me to bet on a change of scenery, despite the fact that I knew that in Miami I could fulfill the dream of every coach: to travel the circuit and compete in the Grand Slams. The day I told him, Apey said exactly those words to me: “You’re wrong, going to Chile is going backwards.” That’s where the Argentine inside me came out: ‘It might be going backwards, but I have confidence in myself, I know that if I do a good job it will mean taking a big step forward.’
How did you carry the change?
At the beginning it was very hard, for an Argentine to come to Chile was not fully understood, but I was bringing the best Chilean player in history at that time, so I was obliged to demonstrate my worth from the beginning. I don’t need to tell you the rivalry that existed between one country and the other.
What was your role?
We set up a great Academy, boys started arriving soon, but I was in charge of traveling to tournaments to attract new talents. One day, in one of those tournaments, a boy caught my attention. That same afternoon I told Hans: “There is a left-hander who drives me crazy, he is 12 years old and his name was Marcelo Ríos.” It was an extraordinary thing. After a while, he ended up coming to our Academy with other boys, but none of them reached his level.
Tell me how you start to guide his steps.
The objective was to start being the best in your club, then the best in your area, then the best in your region, that’s my philosophy. Once you show that you are good at the national level, the next step is to go outside to soak up the European competition system. So we did it, in 1991 we put together a tour of Europe with some boys to play sub16 and sub18 tournaments. Qualy also played at Roland Garros Junior, a World Cup in Barcelona, until he ended up reaching No. 1 Junior.
You went to Chile to travel less weeks and ended up traveling more than ever.
And it was precisely this that led me to change stages. After six years at the Hans Academy, the opportunity came to direct a major club in Chile (Club de Golf Los Leones), where I spent several years. Finally, in 2009, I was offered to grab the Head Coach position in the Chilean Federation, where I spent seven seasons at the forefront of the development part, the minor teams and also serving as Davis Cup sub-captain. At that stage I coincided with Cristian Garín and Nicolás Jarry, for example.
Because you left?
A new directive arrived, so in 2016 I closed that stage and dedicated myself to other things. I went back to Los Leones, where I am now in charge of the training team with the best guys. Right now we are waiting for this damn coronavirus to go away to return to work.
You have always said that it was a ‘luck’ that Marcelo Ríos passed through your life but, in a way, you are somewhat responsible for everything that came later.
It is very difficult to attribute this type of thing, I am left with the words that his father once said: “Each coach put his grain of sand in the stage that corresponded to him.” In my case, I put my grain of sand in his training stage, working well on the court, physically and making a good program so that he could develop outside. Obviously, there are many things we could have done better or differently, but we both did our part at the time. What makes me happiest is that he has recognized my work after so many years.
Your talk on Instagram had a lot of repercussion.
In fact, at the beginning of the talk he has to explain why he gives me the option to do that Live. He could have perfectly given it to a journalist or another important player, but he chose me from me, he recognized my work and that’s the most beautiful thing.
Maybe you were the only one who broke the friendship barrier.
I would say yes. Obviously we also had our fights, as all the teams have, we were even held incommunicado when he reached the elite. Years later we were reunited, I spent a lot at home. We lived many things when he was a child, things that surely have been recorded. Being older, when other more personal problems came to him, I was also there. It was a friendly relationship, different from the others.
Is there an explanation to understand your way of being?
There is a part of Live where he explains it a bit himself. He did not know how to manage the subject of fame, he was not prepared to assimilate such amount of fame in such a short time. I don’t know if he liked that situation, that’s why he created a breastplate, that continuous defense that led him to be rude at certain times was due to his rejection of such an early fame.
We know Ríos but how is Marcelo?
In private he is an incredible person. He can talk about any subject, he is very funny, tremendously intelligent, he is involved in everything. Another thing is what it projects outwards, but he already says it: “Whoever doesn’t like it, shouldn’t follow me, change the channel.” It does not generate half measures, it generates hatred or love.
Being a junior, did you already have that much personality?
Yes, but it was more controllable. It was just as fun, yes, I was always challenging you, I was pushing you to the limit, but I never had any more problems. We were discussing some aspects, different points of view, surely due to a generational issue as well. The teacher must set the tone but the student does not always follow you, sometimes he rebels, although it is something that goes with age.
Did you like to work?
Working was an animal, he always wanted more, he really liked to compete. If not, it would have been impossible for him to have reached what he did. The work he did was incredible, much more than that body could bear, that’s why later he had the injuries he had. As a junior he was always very responsible, he always arrived on time, he did his work daily. I imagine that later it would become a little more complicated, although the people who were with him the following years always claimed that he continued to be a professional.
Did you ever think you had a number one in front of you?
Never, I’m honest with you. In the two World Cups we went to play for the Davis Cup Junior I could see the capabilities he had, but it was too low. At that time there were other juniors like Kafelnikov, Enqvist or Medvedev who at that age were already 1.80m tall. Comparisons are sometimes hateful, but I would look at these players, then look at mine and think that we still lacked a lot physically. It was not that I did not believe in him, but I never projected that he could become number one.
Perhaps it was clearer from the outside.
We always met all the coaches and commented on our players. Tony Pena, now an ESPN commentator, once proposed to do a kind of club saying who we thought would end up in the top 10 of all those guys. Almost all of us agreed on Kafelnikov, Enqvist or Medvedev … none said Marcelo. However, every time he played, Tony Pena came to see him. He always said to me: ‘This boy is going to play well. I don’t know if it will be top10, but top50 gets in. If my son played tennis, I would love for him to do like him. ‘ Those phrases stayed with me forever.
Did it never weigh you down being the best junior in the world?
He was already under significant pressure from the Chilean press due to the void that existed, at that time Hans was already retiring and Pedro Rebolledo was also in his last stage. Then he appeared and the opportunity to have a Chilean player on top again. That is where the pressure begins a little, the fame, at 18 he qualified for Roland Garros and played Sampras in the second round. From that moment, it was all up, his transition was quite fast.
Were there no moments of doubt?
I had a meeting with his father to explain that playing tournaments and continuing to study was practically incompatible, you could not do both with the utmost demand. So we decided to create our own school so that the boys could adapt their studies with tennis, they had three hours of school a day. Despite this, his father was still not very convinced, but in the end they let him dedicate himself to 100% professionalism.
How did you convince him?
He once confessed to me that he made the decision after watching the movie ‘The club of dead poets’. He came out of the movie and said, “I’m going to give him that opportunity.”
But the future was not going to depend on Robin Williams.
I was going to depend a little on the results, that’s what ends up clearing the doubt. I also had the pressure that the boys obtained results, but one learns that each case is a world, some have them soon and others later. At that time we had the examples of Chang, Graf, Sabatini, Becker, Wilander … at 17 they were already among the best. If you had not arrived at the age of 20, it meant that you were not good for tennis, you were not going to arrive. It was ridiculous, that group of players were exceptions.
That feeling of haste still lingers.
Take a look at Aliassime, he is 19 years old and already in the top 20, he is terrific… but Marcelo at 22 years old was No. 1 in the world! There are always doubts, when you have losses it is when they appear, even the coach also has them. But he always had it clear.
How could talent be defined?
Marcelo was very talented in everything, in whatever discipline you put him. I remember seeing him turning two notebooks with two fingers without dropping them, he was also the best in billiards, there was no way to beat ping-pong and in tennis I don’t tell you anything. On the track he did what he wanted. At that time people were already talking about the great punches, so we began to work hard on the rest, not knowing that later it would be a key blow. It is difficult to define what talent is, but if you have a 6-year-old son, you put him on a piano and he plays Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, well man… he has some talent for music. If you teach a player something and within two minutes learn it, we could define that as talent.
But each player projects talent in a way.
The example of Nicolás Massú is always put here. In an interview he said that he never had the talent of Federer or Ríos, what he had was many hours of work, dedication and faith in himself. I think he is wrong, because that is also talent, the ability to work much more than one can. Having a frustration and despite this going on and on and on is also a talent. With that he managed to make a great career. There are many kinds of talent.
Being so good, so soon, can it be a trap?
If you are too good at a certain age, what you have to do is jump to a higher level, but first you have to show that you are too good at that age. It was what happened to Nadal, at the age of 12 no one beat him, so he went on to play with the 14-year-olds, he needed to find something of a level to compete. But this happens only to some chosen ones, those who have a different talent.
That jump also carries a lot of responsibility.
But Marcelo was a boy who was not afraid of anything. In the first tournament we played, I think it was in Italy, it was against the Italian number one in the center court. When we saw him play he told me: ‘This boy is bad’ (laughs). But how can it be bad if he is the No. 1 in Italy! It didn’t matter, he felt capable of playing as equals with anyone.
Do you believe in innate talent? People who are born marked?
I think so, he had a tennis court on his head. If you look at his games, he always anticipated what was going to happen. If he played a ball one way it was because he knew how he was going to return, so you always saw him well placed. Once, during a course in Bolletieri, we were asked who was the fastest player on the circuit. For me it was Michael Chang, but most said Marcelo Ríos. They were wrong, Marcelo what he had was a radar that anticipated the play, so he seemed faster than he was, he was always in the right position. He had a different talent for tennis.
He drank a lot of the Agassi style.
It was the trend of that time, the players harassed you from time to time and space. Today’s tennis is about creating spaces and not giving the rival time. That way, the guys started playing closer to the line, they pushed you so hard that you didn’t have time to react. So was Agassi. In the Lipton 1998 final, where Chino comes out on top, Andre commented that he should have been the player who had the other stranded, but that day it was him, Marcelo had him from one side to the other. They are guys ahead of their time.
What were your training sessions like? Were you worried about something in particular?
We always had that small disadvantage with the serve because Marcelo was small, it took time to hit the lug. We worked a lot on that shot, he had a very wide serve, the timing was not good, so we bet on a shorter movement that looked for precision and effects. We tried to take advantage of the fact that the left-handed player can always get you open, in addition he handled the issue of angles very well. As he played tucked in, the short angles allowed him to open the court and dominate. But I am honest, I never worked on that thinking about the future, it was because it had to be done, we were obliged to improve those aspects because of the type of rivals we had.
Diego Schwartzman confessed years ago there was a technician who told him that he would never live on tennis due to his height. Did anyone screw up with Ríos?
I think Bolletieri said it, that was one of the few times he was wrong. When she saw him play, she admitted that he was very talented, but stressed that with that stature, he could not arrive. The comparisons are hateful, the subject of biotypes, now I do not say anything because I was also wrong many times. In his day I thought that Massú was not going to get anything, but the mistake was in comparing him with Ríos. Then he covered my mouth.
Your position is not easy either.
We, as coaches, must be sincere, many times we are obliged to go to the father and say: “Look, I’m sorry, but your son is not going to get anywhere.” Sometimes we are wrong but we must be cautious, we cannot take someone’s sleep away. Yes, we can advise him with good words, but there are times when the father doesn’t want to understand him either. At the same time, you also have to be careful when you affirm that someone will not get anywhere, at that moment you are destroying a dream.
At what point do you separate your ways?
The last year of junior he already begins to travel with another coach and once he enters professionalism he breaks with us. When you are with a person 24/7 there is always a wear and tear, on both sides. Mistrust comes, he thought he could not get more out of us and I did not have enough patience to last more weeks traveling with juniors. Working with boys in the adolescent stage generates a lot of wear and tear, it is hard, many do not even know what they want. The feeling is that we had fulfilled our function, that is why that break occurred.
Luckily, Ríos’ dream ended up being fulfilled. How did you experience all that at a distance?
There I lost all contact with him, we did not speak. Neither he called me, nor I called him, there was an important distance but I got used to seeing him from afar. I was still watching their games on television, I suffered, I would have liked to be more involved in their circle. It hurts, of course, how can it not hurt? When you like competition, adrenaline … you also saw how you crushed your rivals on the track. Of course I would have loved to be there, it was impressive to see him play.
It left a mark on you.
Obviously, he is part of my story. Then I started to dedicate myself more to social tennis, but they always brought up the subject of Marcelo, the best player at the time. In that sense, one is very proud too.
The million dollar question: why never won a Grand Slam?
It should have been more rigorous in certain situations, moments that he took very light. I am not saying that he did not train well or was not responsible, but perhaps if he relied too much on games like those he lost at Roland Garros with Arazi or Pioline, winnable players for him. Also the final of the Australian Open with Korda. Maybe at some point in that story, someone should have adjusted the pins and said, ‘This is so, so and so.’ He admits it himself, that he didn’t do enough to win a Grand Slam in that key minute. Not being inside at the time, I can’t tell you what went wrong either, but it is clear that the final with Korda was a game that I had to win.
He retired at the age of 28, at which time you meet again.
I did experience that part because it was many times in my house. He came from the injury and the truth is that he did not really want to. All those who were very successful when they were young were later less long-lived, and he also had several ill-treated injuries that were becoming heavier each time. Determination came a bit on that side.
He almost retired at the age of 22, just like you commented in your Instagram live.
I had no idea, when he told me that I almost went crazy. In the end, it also has a lot to do with each other’s personal ambitions. Possibly, his sporting ambition was that, it was not to win Grand Slams. In order to achieve this type of results, it is necessary to measure each step in detail, because all these triumphs are prepared thoroughly, you have to put everything. Did Marcelo do everything possible to get it? He himself is the first to admit no.
Why does the South American have it more difficult to succeed in this sport?
At that time there was a lot of talk about the maturity of those here. Once again, we return to hateful comparisons. The 16-year-old European, whether Russian, Swedish or Spanish, had a tremendous difference in maturity compared to Argentina, Brazil or Chile. I don’t know if because of the structure or what it was, but it was like that, then over time it changed. What does mark a lot is the issue of competition, there is not the same level here as there. When you cross the pond and see the level of Europe you realize that it is much higher because they are all close and continuously compete with each other.
You were the first to take Marcelo to Europe.
When I took him for the first time I saw it clearly: “Here you have to come before.” You can’t take someone to play the Roland Garros Qualy at 18 if he didn’t come earlier, that stuck in my head. You had to go to Europe much earlier, to play the 12 or 14-year-old circuit, you had to plan a tour and that’s how it started later, the South American Confederation began sending 14-year-old boys to play the European circuit. The change is very big, you breathe the atmosphere of the professionals, if not then the shock was very sudden.
But the gap in the top100 is widening.
It increases a lot, yes. What I would do is create work bases in Europe, so that the children can be protected and with a well-armed structure. For example, that they go to the Academia de Nadal and from there begin to travel and work as they do in Spain. That they don’t return to South America until six months later. But hey, we must not forget that you can have the best program in the world that, if you do not have raw materials and a good base, no players will come out. If it were for money, the United States and England would have to have all their players in the top100, but this is not the case. The best example is France, they are always there.
In Chile you built that structure quickly, now they are reaping the fruits.
We had a certain amount of resources that we got to the lung with the Olympic Committee. All they wanted was for the boys to win medals, and we won them, so our status grew. From there I was meeting with each player and their respective coach, Garín and Jarry being the benchmarks. They completed a stage despite not having the full support of each tour, but they did receive that support on major tours so that they could travel with their coaches and gain order. At that stage there were other players who remained in the pipeline, but Nico and Cristian did fulfill that part of the process. I go back to before: there is no project that achieves success if you do not have raw material to squeeze.
After so many years in Santiago, did you become a little Chilean?
They ask me a lot: ‘If Chile and Argentina play in the Davis Cup, who are you going with?’ One cannot deny where it comes from, but if I am working with Chile, then I will go with the Chileans, I will not go with Argentina. If the soccer teams play then it is another story. The shirt of my country is Argentina.
How much will South America return to having a world reference in the rankings?
I have great faith in these two boys, Garín and Jarry. When we get out of this situation, I think they both have a great opportunity to get into the top10. To the top20 they will arrive safely, then to take the next jump you already need that mental factor, to withstand the pressure, work, determination, it is a combination of everything. They have the conditions to arrive.
And to see a talent like Chino?
I answer you with another question. Will we ever see a Mozart or a Beethoven again? It is very difficult, but there should be one. Maybe her son, Marcelito.