No one can hit angles the same way Marcelo Rios can. No one can take the ball on the rise as early as Rios can. To play this style he needed to be one of the quickest players of all time. He was. He was never standing straight up but always on the move filling the photographer's shot. So beautiful to film was he. But even more exciting for fans was watch him line up his absurdly angled shot with such consistency. His finesse on volleys and drop shots rarely failed him.
Agassi vs Rios Lipton Championship in Miami 1998 is featured below. The Agassi vs Rios rivalry is fantastically underrated. They can both play long extended rallies moving each other around the court with angles. Each are supremely fit. Rios will run everything down and be able to hit any shot while on the run. He can hit angles with finesse, he can slice the ball, or drop-shot you. His loopy ground-strokes bring fluidity to his swing thus adding consistency. His ability to create successful angled shots comes from two reasons: the fluidity of his topspin shot allow him to swing through the ball making the shot regardless of his nerves. Secondly, he reads the geometry of the court so well he knows the exact pace and spin to use so the attempted angle doesn't go wide. When the angle is long enough like on the slight deep crosscourt he puts full pace on the shot. Otherwise if his angle is sharp enough he doesn't hit the ball unnecessarily hard to risk error. He even seems to realize if his shot will be a winner. Or if he needs to keep grinding from the baseline or advance to the net to finish the point.
Everything said in the last two paragraphs is evident in the 26:02 point. He mercilessly moves Andre Agassi around the court.
Commentator Mary Carillo claims Rios is trying to hit up the middle. Instead, I feel he is hitting the shot available to him. He is trying for the angle, but if his body isn't turned enough he knows trying for a sharper angle will be a mishit. So he turns his body fully and fearlessly hits severe angles. And he runs down all of Agassi's shots so the play feels continuous. The fact that his winning style of play is percentage tennis adds excitement because fans know they will see many great points. The fans have something to cheer about at 28:15. I want that shot in my arsenal. Although, I could never hit the angled inside out forehand so casually in the biggest match of my life.
The point construction starting at 31:21 is great because of Rios' accuracy and ability to keep Agassi unsettled. Three shots to his backhand and one to his forehand while on the run. Rios's accuracy on the run is unappreciated by the average player who only studies points that end in winners. Rios is able to run to any shot with perfect footwork and hit the ball the way he wants. Although not as glamorous as hitting outright winners, this is the true joy of tennis. Look how he almost runs down Agassi's shot at 32:01.
The fun commentary team of Bill Macatee and Mary Carillo mention that Rios will become number one today because of his quickness and his ability to take the ball early. Mary Carillo adds that some number ones lacked great backhands, lacked great serves, lacked great net games. But they were all quick. She never saw a slow number one. Then Bill Macatee creates fun from the windsurfer falling at 39 minutes.
If you can hit the Rios angles from the baseline, why should you ever leave the baseline? Well, at the 41:45 point Rios shows the advantages of a properly timed net advance (he got Agassi deep and off to the side): added pressure to your opponent, ends the point quicker, and forces a difficult topspin drive from your opponent. Instead, Rios gets an easy high volley. Rios then brings himself to set point by knocking off a sharply-angled backhand. Agassi puts him away with groundstrokes, but Carillo adds Rios quickness was above normal. That is why this is fun to watch. This Rios match is unprecedented tennis. Yet Agassi keeps saving set points with aces or ground stroke winners. Everyone should have Rios's second shot from the 44:20 point. He angles the ball with tremendous pace, yet it's a safe shot! Excellent put away! At 45:20 Rios does incredibly well to curl ball inside the line. Perhaps Agassi felt the pressure of Rios returns, or maybe he lacks match play. Because Agassi double faults to give Rios the first set 7-5.
47 Minutes in, Tennis Champion Marcelo Rios opens up the court inflicting pain on the scurrying Agassi. And he does this again on the next point, notice how he takes pace off the finishing shot. The true talent lies in hitting the correct finishing shot in a side to side combat point. Rios varies his kill shots by varying depth. He hits inside the service line on shots he wants to angle and adds depth on put-aways into the corner. Agassi cannot read Rios's shots. And after facing Rios's sideways tennis in a point Agassi can run no more. Rios knocks off an easy-looking soft volley ending the point at 51 minutes.
At 1:07:00 we are saying sarcastically to ourselves, "sure the net game is that easy lol" Rios punches the volley up the line then a nice touch volley to win the game. At 1:08:00 we are amazed at the angle and pace of Rios' return. He then hits one of the most insanely-good-belly-button-jammed-volleys for a clean winner. Rios plays with the perfect mindset of going for length on his shots unafraid of hitting long. Occasionally he gets the desired depth and he never commits the sin of hitting the ball into the net.
Agassi definitely counters Rios with similar play throughout the match. Agassi has some great returns and passing shots. But he is overshadowed by Marcelo Rios in this match. Rios puts in the hard running yards at 1:12:30. Rios bangs a few aces and takes the 2nd set 6-3. Rios's clean grinding game inevitably builds his winner error to 16 winners and 2 errors in the second set.
Even when he misses Rios looks good. At 1:16:40 he basically gets jammed by the ball but creates a crazy spin on the ball when it lands. Rios sees the ball as having four sides to create angles. He always has a perverse degree of sides pin on his topspin or slice shots. He has practiced to have the necessary amount of spin for each shot. To fully develop our games we must not simply hit the ball bottom to top (topspin) or cut it top to bottom (slice); But we must hit across the ball right to left, left to right regardless of our court position or stance. Only then are we on our way to mastering the game of Tennis.
Near the end of the third set Rios has hit 33 winners and 20 errors. More impressively though, is the fact that in the 2nd and 3rd sets he has struck 29 winners to only 9 errors. Agassi is under tremendous pressure to win individual points. Rios hits with tremendous racquet head speed on his inside out shots and inside in shots. Rios' racquet head preparation on his way to the ball is so good he has all the time in the world to hit a passing shot off of Agassi's approach shot. Rios is a player firing on all cylinders hitting angled winner after crushing forehand winner. Yet Agassi presses with one final error.
After 1 hour and 56 minutes, Rios wins the third set 6-4. He wins the match 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. Rios waves his Chilean flag to the erupting crowd. Rios was confident he would win today. He now embraces his father and girlfriend with hugs. Agassi looks to the positives and shows love for this tournament, Miami, and fans.
Quick Match Insight
Neither guy hits the ball long very much. Yet they were both hitting the ball quite hard. This match is easy to follow and watch in one sitting. If Agassi or Rios were to play in a junior clinic the kids would be amazed at how hard they hit the ball yet have it land before the service box. This depth allows them to angle the ball off the court without hitting the ball wide. Both Agassi and Rios know how to hit the ball side to side, angle to angle, corner to corner. But what makes Rios great is that he varies his kill shot. He often doesn't overplay the final shot. Especially when running down a drop shot. He just slowly loops the ball at an angle. Rios impresses the viewer with his poise, consistency, angled looping ground strokes and efficient net play.
For more on Rios I recommend Scoop Malinowski's book.
Marcelo Rios: The Man We Barely Knew