Healthy Rios eager to re-join Top 10

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PHILADELPHIA (Sports Network) - After being slowed by injuries for the better part of two seasons, recently-wed former world No. 1 star Marcelo Rios is ready for another run at the Top 10.

The pugnacious Chilean, who saw his overall world ranking plummet to No. 35 by the end of the 2000 season (two years after achieving the top ranking early in 1998), just started his 2001 campaign by capturing the season-opening Qatar Open in Doha -- an Australian Open tune-up. Rios dusted off his injuries to reach a final for the first time since running the table in Umag, Croatia last year. His title in Doha included a 6-1, 6-3 semifinal victory over tough Belarusian Vladimir Voltchkov, and a 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 final win against veteran Czech Bohdan Ulihrach.

Prior to winning in Doha, Rios had not competed on the ATP since last October. But after one week of the 2001 season, the inspired Rios is atop the Champions Race with 50 points.

"To win the first tournament of the year and now lead the Race after one week, I don't think I can ask for more. It's one of the best titles out of the 17 that I have," said Rios.

Last year, the sometimes bratty lefthander was not the same player after undergoing groin-area surgery in November of 1999. But he's proven that when healthy, the moody South American can delight fans with world class tennis, as evidenced by six weeks of No. 1 footing in the spring of '98 at the age of 22. Rios enjoyed four-week and two-week stays atop the rankings that year.

The Santiago native had been accustomed to Top-10 status in recent years, finishing the 1997, '98 and '99 campaigns there, and just missing out in 1996 (11th).

The eight-year pro, however, was a pedestrian 28-23 last season, managing only one victory against an eventual year-end Top-10 player (Tim Henman in Toronto). Rios was a powerless 1-9 against Top-10 performers in 2000, failing to post victories against the likes of Australian Lleyton Hewitt (0-1), Russians Marat Safin (0-2) and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (0-1), Spaniard Alex Corretja (0-2), and Swede Thomas Enqvist (0-1).

The 5-9, 160-pound Rios is one of only seven South Americans to place in the year-end Top 10 since 1973, joining Guillermo Vilas, Jose-Luis Clerc, Andres Gomez, Nicolas Lapentti, Alberto Mancini, and current world No. 1 star Gustavo Kuerten.

The diminutive 25-year-old southpaw, who hoisted just four trophies over the previous two seasons, has expressed a desire to improve upon those plaudits in 2001. Rios' championship in Umag last year marked his lone appearance in a final in the dreaded Y2K.

The pony-tailed Chilean's offseason was highlighted by his December marriage to Giuliana Sotela. He celebrated his 25th birthday the same day.

The Rios' were joined in holy matrimony at the Santa Ursula church in the chic district of Vitacura, east of the tennis ace's beloved Santiago (host of the ATP's Chevrolet Cup tournament in mid- February). A gleeful reception was held at the Brisas de Chicureo Golf Club, with both the bride and groom clad in all white.

Sotela could represent the settling presence that a player of Rios' ilk is in dire need of.

"El Chino," who has piled up over $8 million in career prize money and pocketed countless additional dollars thanks to endorsement deals with such companies as Nike (shoes/threads) and Yonex (racket), needs to prove to himself that he can come all the way back. And based on his start in Qatar, that appears to be a real possibility.

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